Riven Rock [NOOK Book]


T. C. Boyle's seventh novel transforms two characters straight out of history into rich mythic figures whose tortured love story is as heartbreaking as it is hilarious. It is the dawn of the 20th century when the beautiful, budding feminist Katherine Dexter falls in love with Stanley McCormick, son of a millionaire inventor. The two wed, but before the marriage is consummated, Stanley experiences a nervous breakdown and is diagnosed as a schizophrenic sex maniac. Locked up for the rest of his life at Riven Rock, ...
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Riven Rock

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T. C. Boyle's seventh novel transforms two characters straight out of history into rich mythic figures whose tortured love story is as heartbreaking as it is hilarious. It is the dawn of the 20th century when the beautiful, budding feminist Katherine Dexter falls in love with Stanley McCormick, son of a millionaire inventor. The two wed, but before the marriage is consummated, Stanley experiences a nervous breakdown and is diagnosed as a schizophrenic sex maniac. Locked up for the rest of his life at Riven Rock, the family's California mansion, Stanley is treated by a series of confident doctors determined to cure him. But his true salvation lies with Katherine who, throughout her career as a scientist and suffragette, continues a patient vigil from beyond the walls of Riven Rock, never losing hope that one day Stanley will be healed. Blending social history with some of the most deliciously dark humor ever written, Boyle employs his hallmark virtuoso prose to tell the story of America's age of innocence--and of a love affair that is as extraordinary as it is unforgettable.
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Editorial Reviews

Peter Kurth
When was the last time you read a work of historical fiction that left you completely satisfied? Not a novel "set in the past," but the fictionalized account of actual persons who lived, breathed and -- in this case -- went mad in the hills above Santa Barbara, Calif.? In Riven Rock, his seventh novel, T. Coraghessan Boyle has taken the depressing story of Stanley R. McCormick, one of the sons and heirs of Cyrus McCormick, the inventor of the reaper, and turned it into a thrilling, romantic, careening tale of love, redemption and the rewards of the faithful heart. It's no small feat when you consider that Stanley McCormick was a paranoid schizophrenic and sexual maniac who spent the better part of his adult life locked away from women in a lonely, California-Moorish castle -- the Riven Rock of the book's title -- surrounded by a team of male doctors and attendants who were his only companions for 20-odd years.

The case, while not famous, was certainly known in its time, particularly after 1929, when Stanley McCormick's wife, Boston socialite and suffragist Katherine Dexter McCormick, sued to gain full control of her husband's person and estate. She fought not only the Chicago McCormick dynasty but a slew of psychiatrists, lawyers, male nurses and hangers-on whose livelihoods all depended on McCormick's remaining insane and in need of their care. The never-consummated, purely emotional marriage of Stanley and Katherine is the meat and heart of Riven Rock, balanced and mirrored by the adventures of Eddie O'Kane, Stanley McCormick's hard-drinking, philandering, guilt-ridden Irish nurse (presumably modeled on McCormick's real-life attendant, Kenneth McKillip, and one of the only characters in the novel whose name has been changed). O'Kane is earth and flesh to Stanley and Katherine's romantic idealism. This is a novel about love and sex and the way they work, or don't, together.

"All her life Katherine Dexter had been disappointed in men," Boyle writes about his brainy heroine (one of the first women graduates of MIT, who ultimately left her husband's entire fortune to her alma mater). "She didn't like to generalize, but if she did she would find the average man to be false, petty, childish and smug, an overgrown playground bully distended by nature and lack of exercise until he fitted his misshapen suits and the ridiculous bathing costume he donned to show off his ape-like limbs at the beach." Boyle is one of our finest descriptive writers, an Irishman through and through. It's hard to know what impresses most, his stunningly unexpected way with a phrase -- "He'd led the chase through three cars, bobbing and weaving in his maniacal slope-shouldered gait, apparently looking to run right on up through the length of the train, over the tender and across the nose of the locomotive to perch on the cowcatcher and catch insects in his teeth all the way to California" -- or his bold romanticism and lyric tone: "It was the key, the first principle, the beginning. And so much was engendered there, the broken wall, the burning roof and tower, because the key fit and the key turned, and from that moment on he wooed her with the sweetest phrases from the driest texts, with reform, the uplifting of the poor, the redistribution of wealth and the seizing of the means of production for the good and glory of the common man." This is a splendid book, a noble achievement, a work of art. -- Salon

Michiko Kakutani
[Boyle] has apparently decided to try, as he once put it, ''to do emotions,'' rather than embrace his more antic comic talents....The results are far more mixed: a long, meandering and fluently written book that has some truly affecting moments but that ultimately reduces two of its three main characters to caricatures. -- The New York Times
New Yorker
A bracing examination of misogynymental illnessand the shadowy side of love.
Seattle Times
Wise and touching...Boyle's best novel to date.
Library Journal
When Stanley McCormick, the brilliant but highly strung son of the inventor of the Reaper, marries Boston socialite and MIT graduate Katherine Dexter, the papers call it the wedding of the century. But the marriage is never consummated, and after a disastrous honeymoon, a catatonic Stanley is moved to Riven Rock, a prisonlike mission in Santa Barbara. Diagnosed as a schizophrenic sex maniac, Stanley is to be kept entirely separate from women, including Katherine, who may speak to him only by telephone. Katherine goes on to become a major figure in the burgeoning suffrage movement and even smuggles a steamer trunk full of contraceptives into the country in support of Margaret Sanger, but she never divorces her husband or gives up hoping for a cure. Riven Rock resembles The Road to Wellville in its send-up of medical quackery in the early years of the century, but here the fact-based love story takes precedence over satire. This affecting and surprisingly mature novel is Boyle's best book since Water Music -- Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law School Library, Los Angeles
Library Journal
When Stanley McCormick, the brilliant but highly strung son of the inventor of the Reaper, marries Boston socialite and MIT graduate Katherine Dexter, the papers call it the wedding of the century. But the marriage is never consummated, and after a disastrous honeymoon, a catatonic Stanley is moved to Riven Rock, a prisonlike mission in Santa Barbara. Diagnosed as a schizophrenic sex maniac, Stanley is to be kept entirely separate from women, including Katherine, who may speak to him only by telephone. Katherine goes on to become a major figure in the burgeoning suffrage movement and even smuggles a steamer trunk full of contraceptives into the country in support of Margaret Sanger, but she never divorces her husband or gives up hoping for a cure. Riven Rock resembles The Road to Wellville in its send-up of medical quackery in the early years of the century, but here the fact-based love story takes precedence over satire. This affecting and surprisingly mature novel is Boyle's best book since Water Music -- Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law School Library, Los Angeles
Paul Kafka
Boyle combines his gift for historical re-creation with his dazzling powers as a storyteller....Riven Rock is as romantic as it is informative, as colorful as it is convincing. -- The Boston Globe
The New Yorker
A bracing examination of misogyny, mental illness, and the shadowy side of love.
The Washington Post
One of the most gifted writers of his generation.
Seattle Times
Wise and touching...Boyle's best novel to date.
Bengt Ulin
A compelling combination of historical truth and literary invention. -- Chicago Tribune
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781408826799
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • Publication date: 7/1/2011
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 129,845
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

T. Coraghessan Boyle
T. Coraghessan Boyle was born in the suburbs of Manhattan. He has written six previous novels: Water Music, Budding Prospects, East is East, World's End for which he won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 1988, Road to Welville, and The Tortilla Curtain. He is also the author of four collections of short stories, the latest of which is called Without A Hero. He now lives near Santa Barbara in California.
T. C. Boyle is the New York Times bestselling author of ten collections of stories and fourteen novels, most recently, San Miguel, followed by the second volume of his collected stories, T. C. Boyle Stories II. His work has been translated into twenty-five languages and won a PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. He is a member of the Academy of Arts and Letters and lives in California.


In the interest of time and space, it might be easier to note the writers that T. C. Boyle isn't compared to. But let's give the reverse a try: Donald Barthelme, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Evelyn Waugh, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Kingsley Amis, Thomas Berger, Robert Coover, Lorrie Moore, Stanley Elkin, Tom Robbins, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Don DeLillo, Flannery O'Connor.

Oh, let's not forget F. Lee Bailey. And Dr. Seuss.

Boyle, widely admired for his acrobatic verbal skill, wild narratives and quirky characters (in one short story, he imagines a love affair between Dwight Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev's wife), has dazzled critics since his first novel in 1981.

Consider this example, from Larry McCaffery in a 1985 article for The New York Times: "Beneath its surface play, erudition and sheer storytelling power, his fiction also presents a disturbing and convincing critique of an American society so jaded with sensationalized images and plasticized excess that nothing stirs its spirit anymore.... It is into this world that Mr. Boyle projects his heroes, who are typically lusty, exuberant dreamers whose wildly inflated ambitions lead them into a series of hilarious, often disastrous adventures."

But as much as critics will bow at his linguistic gifts, some also knock him for resting on them a bit too heavily, hinting that the impressive showmanship attempts to hide a shortage of depth and substance.

Craig Seligman, writing in The New Republic in 1993, pointed out that "Boyle loves a mess. He loves chaos. He loves marshes and jungles, and he loves the jungle of language: luxuriant sentences overgrown with lianas of lists, sesquipedalian words hanging down like rare fruits. For all its exoticism, though, his prose is lucid to the point of transparency. It doesn't require much deeper concentration than a good newspaper (though it does require a dictionary)."

Reviewing The Tortilla Curtain in 1995, New York Times critic Scott Spencer scratched his head over why Boyle had invited readers along for this particular ride: "Mr. Boyle's fictional strategy is puzzling. Why are we being asked to follow the fates of characters for whom he clearly feels such contempt? Not surprisingly, this is ultimately off-putting. Perhaps Mr. Boyle has received too much praise for his zany sense of humor; in this book, that wit often seems merely a maddening volley of cheap shots. It's like living next door to a gun nut who spends all day and half the night shooting at beer bottles."

Growing up, Boyle had no aspirations to be a writer. It wasn't until his studies at State University of New York, where he as a music student, that he bumped into his muse. "I went there to be a music major but found I really couldn't hack that at the age of 17," he told The Writer in 1999. "I just started to read outside my classes -- literature and history. I wound up being a history and English major; when I wandered into a creative writing class as a junior, I realized that writing was what I could do."

He then started teaching, in part to avoid getting drafted into the Vietnam War, and later applied to the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop.

After a collection of short stories in 1979, he released his first novel, Water Music, called "pitiless and brilliant" by The New Republic, and has shuttled back and forth between novels and short stories, all known for their explosions of character imagination. Mr. Boyle's literary sensibility ... thrives on excess, profusion, pushing past the limits of good taste to comic extremes," McCaffery wrote in his 1985 New York Times piece. "He is a master of rendering the grotesque details of the rot, decay and sleaze of a society up to its ears in K Mart oil cans, Kitty Litter and the rusted skeletons of abandoned cars and refrigerators."

In his review of Drop City, the 2003 novel set in California commune that won Boyle a National Book Award nomination, Dwight Garner joins the chorus of critical acclaim over the years – "Boyle has always been a fiendishly talented writer" – but he also acknowledges some of the criticism that Boyle has faced in these same years.

"The rap against Boyle's work has long been that he's a sort of madcap predator drone, raining down hard nuggets of contempt, sarcasm and bitter humor on the poor men and women in his books while rarely giving us characters we're actually persuaded to feel anything about," he wrote. "This is partly a bum rap -- and I'd hate to knock contempt, sarcasm and bitter humor -- but there's enough truth in it that it's a joy to find, in Drop City that Boyle gives us a lot more than simply a line of bong-addled innocents led to slaughter."

But perhaps the neatest summary of Boyle's work would be from Lorrie Moore, one of the novelists to which he has been compared. In a 1994 New York Times review of Boyle's short story collection Without a Hero, she praised Boyle's "astonishing and characteristic verve, his unaverted gaze, his fascination with everything lunatic and queasy."

"God knows, Mr. Boyle can write like an angel," she continues later, "if at times a caustic, gum-chewing one. And in this strong, varied collection maybe we have what we'd hope to find in heaven itself (by the time we begged our way there): no lessening of brilliance, plus a couple of laughs to mitigate all that high and distant sighing over what goes on below."

Good To Know

Boyle changed his middle name from John to Coraghessan (pronounced "kuh-RAGG-issun") when he was 17.

He is known almost as much for his ego as his writing. "Each book I put out, I think, 'Goodbye, Updike and Mailer, forget it," The New Republic quoted him as saying. "I joke at Viking that I'm going to make them forget the name of Stephen King forever, I'm going to sell so many copies.

Boyle's philosophy on reading and writing, as told to The Writer: "Good literature is a living, brilliant, great thing that speaks to you on an individual and personal level. You're the reader. I think the essence of it is telling a story. It's entertainment. It's not something to be taught in a classroom, necessarily. To be alive and be good, it has to be a good story that grabs you by the nose and doesn't let you go till The End."

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    1. Also Known As:
      T.C. Boyle
    2. Hometown:
      Santa Barbara California
    1. Date of Birth:
      December 2, 1948
    2. Place of Birth:
      Peekskill, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A. in music, State University of New York at Potsdam, 1970; Ph.D. in literature, Iowa University, 1977
    2. Website:

Table of Contents

World Without Women 1
PART I: Dr. Hamilton's Time
2. EVE 30
PART II: Dr. Brush's Time
PART III: Dr. Kempfs Time
World Without Walls 463
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First Chapter

HOW HIS HAND How his hand came into contact with her face--her sweet plump irritating little burr of a wifely face that found a place beside his each night on the connubial pillow--was as much a mystery to O'Kane as the scalloped shell of the sky and the rain that fell as one angry inveterate thing over all this weary part of the earth. It wasn't late--not ten o'clock yet. And he wasn't angry. Not yet, anyway. On the contrary, he'd been celebrating--polluting himself, as she would say, living it up, for he's a jolly good fellow and three cheers for this one and that one and rah, rah, rah--celebrating with Nick and Pat and Mart, and with Dr. Hamilton, yes, with him too. Celebrating the rest of his life that had just been turned on like an electric switch, flooding him with light, light that poured from his nostrils and ears and his mouth and no doubt his rectum too, though he hadn't yet had occasion to look down there; but he would, he would eventually. And then he had come home, and there she was, stalking the sitting room like a bristling tireless little rat-gnawing thing, all primed and ready to pounce.

He hadn't meant to hit her--and he'd hit her only once, or maybe twice, before--and the thing was, he wasn't even angry, just ... irritated. And tired. Drained to the core. The noise she made, and the baby squalling in the back room, and the way she kept thrusting her face at him as if it was a volleyball, tanned, stitched and puffed up to regulation pressure, and she wouldn't let him have this, not even this, after all the gut-wrenching and indecision it had cost him over the past two months, and when the inflated ball of her face had come at him for maybe the fiftieth time he slammed it right up and over the net, just as if he was still in school and diving for a low one on the hard foot-compacted turf of the volleyball court. That opened her up, all right, and there was no peace for him after that, she was like an artesian well, a real gusher, tears and blood and rage exploding at him, and all he could think of, dodging away from that streaming face till he was so drained and exhausted he toppled into a blackness deeper than the last dying wink of consciousness, was Mrs. McCormick--Katherine--and what a lady she was, and Rosaleen stuck to him like flypaper and howling till the windows went to pieces and the roof collapsed and the whole drugged and dreaming town fell away into some deep fissure of the earth.

Earlier that day, in the morning, it had been different. He'd awakened at first light and saw her there beside him, the soft petals of her eyelids and her lashes and lips and the fragile composition of her face, and he thought about kissing her, leaning over and brushing his lips against the down of her cheek, but he didn't. He didn't want to wake her--or his son either. It was too peaceful, the submarine light, the stealthy tick of the clock, the rudiments of birdnoise, and he didn't want to have to talk to her about the McCormicks and the meeting and what he feared and what he hoped--he hardly knew himself. He stripped off his flannels at the side of the bed and slipped naked into the sitting room with his good Donegal tweed over one arm and a fresh suit of underwear over the other, and dressed like a thief of clothes. Then he was out the door and into another life.

The year was 1908, and he'd just turned 25. He was a hair under six feet, with the pugilist's build he'd inherited from his father (who'd put the prototype to good use in a series of mostly victorious bare-knuckle fights in the nineties), and his mother's wistful sea-green eyes with the two hazel clock hands implanted in the right one, inflexibly pointing, for this lifetime at least, to three o'clock. His mother had always told him that chronometric eye would bring him luck--great luck and fortune--and when he questioned her, skeptical even at 10 and 11, she just pointed to the proof and insisted that the hour was preordained. But what about you? he would say, lifting his eyes to the colorless walls of the four rooms they shared with his grandmother, his uncle Billy, his four sisters and three cousins, where's your three o'clock luck? And she would frame his face with her hands, the softest touch in the world, and whisper, "It's right here, right here, between my hands."

The morning flew. He'd started off at the White Street house, where they'd installed Mr. McCormick to get him away from the disturbing influence of the other patients, and then he'd gone on to McLean and now he was late, cutting across the lawn out front of the administrative building on a day that was like a wet dishrag, though it was the last week of April and he would have sacrificed to the gods to see a ray of sun--he was late and hurrying and he didn't give a damn for the fact that he'd left his hat and overcoat back in the nurses' common room and the cuffs of his good Donegal tweed trousers were soaking up the damp like a pair of fat swollen sponges tied to his ankles. He should have, because when the tailor came over from Ballyshannon and settled into the rooming house down the street from them and his mother said he should take advantage of the opportunity and have one nice suit made because if he ever hoped to work with his brains instead of his back he'd have to look like one of the quality, he'd laid out $18 for it. Eighteen dollars in good hard Yankee coin he'd earned at the Boston Lunatic Asylum scraping blood, vomit and worse off the walls. And here it was, wet through in the shoulders and crawling up his shins and sure as the devil it was going to shrink, but what did he care? It was two minutes to eleven, the hair was hanging wet in his eyes and Dr. Hamilton was waiting for him. If things worked out, he could buy six suits.

It wasn't like him to be late--it was unprofessional, and Dr. Hamilton was a stickler for the "three p's," as he called them: punctuality, propriety and professionalism--and O'Kane, already wrought up, felt like a piece of fat in the fryer as he charged across the wet lawn. He was sweating under the arms and the hair was dangling like rope in his face. It wasn't like him, but he was behind his time because he'd gotten distracted over at White Street, and then in the back ward, and all because of the apes. Apes and monkeys, that is. They were all he could think about. And it was funny too because this was the kind of day that got the violents stirred up--it wasn't just the full moon, it was any change in the weather, even from perpetual gloom to a driving downpour--and as he hurried across the lawn he could hear Katzakis the Mad Greek and the one they called the Apron Man hooting at one another from the maximum ward, hooting just like apes. Violents he knew inside and out--he ought to after seven years in the profession--but his experience with hominoids, as Dr. Hamilton called them, was limited. And why wouldn't it be? South Boston, Danvers and Waverley weren't exactly tropical jungles.

In fact, aside from the usual boyhood encounters with the organ-grinder's monkey, the sideshow at the circus, the zoo and that sort of thing, he'd only come within spitting distance of an ape once, and that was in a barroom. He'd gone into Donnelly's one afternoon for a pint and a chat, and when he looked up from his beer there was a man sitting beside him at the counter with a one-eyed chimpanzee on a leash. For a shot of rye whiskey and a beer chaser the man got the chimp to pull out his organ and piss in a beer glass and then drink it down as if it was the finest 86-proof Irish--and smack his lips to boot. When the man had chased his third shot he gave a look up and down the bar and said he would challenge anybody in the place to arm-wrestle the thing for half a dollar--this scrawny half-bald one-eyed little monkey that stank like all the souls in hell boiled in their own juice and then left out in the sun for a week after that--and there was a lot of elbowing and obscene commentary from the patrons as they worked themselves up to it. Finally, Frank Leary, a big squareheaded loudmouthed bull of a man who worked for the railroad, took him up on it, and the thing pinned Leary's wrist to the bar in half a second and wouldn't let go of his hand till there were tears in his eyes.

The experience didn't exactly qualify O'Kane as a hominoid expert, as he would have been the first to admit, and he'd spent a painful hour in the library after work yesterday squinting into an encyclopedia in the vain hope of learning something--anything--that might impress Mrs. McCormick. Or, if not impress her, at least keep the level of humiliation down to a minimum if she suddenly took it into her head to grill him on the subject. The library was an alien place to O'Kane, damper than a Chinese laundry and three times as cold, the lighting hominoidally primitive and the illumination offered by the encyclopedia on the subject of apes nearly as dim. "Apes," he read, "are intelligent animals and are more closely related to man than any other living primates. They are popular zoo and circus animals. They also have figured widely in the legends and folktales of many countries." After a while he pushed himself up, replaced the book on the shelf and ambled over to Donnelly's to fix this vast reservoir of knowledge in his brain with the aid of a mnemonic whiskey or two.

And now he was late and his one good suit was crawling up his shins and he was wondering how he was going to break the staggering news to Mrs. McCormick, the Ice Queen herself, that apes were popular zoo and circus animals. But as he reached the verge of the lawn and vaulted the retaining wall there, crossed the flagstone walkway and started up the steps of the ad building, the multifarious marvel of his congested brain surprised him--the apes flew right out of his head and he was thinking about California. Or he wasn't thinking about it, not exactly--he had a vision, a sudden vivid recollection of a place there, date palms shimmering beneath the golden liquefaction of the sun and orange trees with fruit like swollen buttocks and a little bungalow or whatever they called it snug in the corner--and this was odd, more than odd, since he'd never in his life been west of Springfield. It took him a minute to realize it must have been one of those orange crate labels he was calling up, the ones that make you want to throw down the snow shovel right that minute and catch the next train west. But there it was, real or illusionary--California--hanging in his head in all its exotic glory where the apes had been a moment before.

And then finally, as he stepped through the big beveled-glass doors and into the dim paste-wax-and-coal-dust-smelling hall, he thought of his own Rosaleen, his sorrow and his joy, his sweet, randy, pugnacious, clover-lipped bride of three months and mother of his green-eyed boy, Edward Jr. What was she going to think when he told her they were moving to California for the sake of Mr. Stanley McCormick, late of the McCormick Reaper Works and the International Harvester Company, Mr. McCormick and a troop of apes? And what was her mother going to think and her cauliflower-eared brothers and her quibbling old stump of a father who'd wanted to skin him alive for getting her in trouble in the first place? As if it was all his fault, as if she hadn't seen her chance and taken it--and hadn't he done the right thing by her, and wasn't she at that very moment sitting snug in the walkup on Chestnut Street with her baby and her new curtains and everything else a woman could want?

He passed by Dr. Cowles' office at a stiff-legged trot, swiping at his hair and wrestling with his tie and trying to contort his shoulders to fit the sodden confines of the suit, and it was all he could do to flick a little wave at Miss Ianucci, Dr. Cowles's typewriter. Miss Ianucci was a spaghetti twister from Italy who couldn't seem to find a shirtwaist big enough to accommodate her appurtenances and who never ceased touching her lips and crossing and uncrossing her legs whenever O'Kane got a chance to stop in and chat with her--which was every time he passed by unless he was on his way to a fire. People were always grousing about the immigrants--the I-talians this and the Polacks that, the Guineas and wops and bohunks, and his father was one of the most vocal and vehement, though he'd come over himself in an empty whiskey barrel aboard a transatlantic steamer not thirty years ago--but for his money they could let in all the Miss Ianuccis they wanted. And wouldn't that be a job, standing there at the bottom of the gangplank, and passing judgment on this one or that: Nah, send her back--she's flat as an ironing board. Her? Yeah, we'll take her. Come on over here, miss, and step into the examining room a minute won't you? A man could create an entire race, a whole new breed based on tits alone--or hips or legs or turned-up noses and pinned-back ears. Look what they'd done with dogs....

Anyway, he had to content himself with a wave this time because he knew how much this meeting meant to Dr. Hamilton--and to himself, himself and Rosaleen--and he hustled down the hall while Miss Ianucci stuck a finger in the corner of her mouth and sucked on it and crossed and uncrossed her legs and gave him the richest smile in all the world. Two doors down, three, and it was all he could do to keep from breaking into a run. He glanced up as he hurried past the portrait of John McLean, the decidedly unsmiling and bewigged philanthropist who'd given a hundred thousand dollars back in 1818 to open the doors of this fair institution, and though he was late, though he looked like hell and the smells of fear and hope were commingled in his sweat and his sweat was flowing as if it were the middle of July and he was carrying the entire McCormick family up a hill on his shoulders, apes and all, he couldn't help thinking, for just the fleetingest instant, of what he could do with a hundred thousand dollars--and it wouldn't be to endow any charitable organization, that was for sure, unless it was the Edward James O'Kane Benevolent and Fiduciary Fund. But enough of that. Suddenly he was there, at the far end of the hallway, breathing hard, three minutes past eleven, half-soaked, sweating and wild-eyed, tapping respectfully at the smooth varnished plane of Dr. Hamilton's door.

He could detect the purl of conversation from within, and his heart sank. This was what he'd been fearing since he'd slipped out of the house and into the festering gray maw of the dawn, what he was afraid of as he emptied bedpans and jerked rigid lunatics and simple morons down from the barred windows and up from the beds: she was there already. Which meant he was late. Officially. He cursed himself and tapped again, this time with a little more vigor, and felt even worse when the murmur broke off abruptly, as if he were interrupting something. There was an agonizing silence during which the wild thought that they were conspiring to leave him out of it altogether raced through his head, and then he heard Dr. Hamilton murmur, "That must be him now," and any trace of composure he might have been able to muster evaporated in that instant. "Come in," the doctor called, and O'Kane felt his face flush as he pushed open the door and entered the room.

The first thing he noticed was the fire--a lavish crackling devil-may-care blaze that played off the paneled walls and cast a soft glow on the doctor's collection of wax impressions of the human brain, the first fire O'Kane had ever seen in this particular fireplace, even in the dim frozen mists of January or February. But there it was, a fire to take the dampness out of the air and create a relaxed and cozy atmosphere, as Dr. Hamilton had no doubt calculated. It was a surprise, a real surprise, as was the tray of finger sandwiches, a teapot and the decanter of sherry set out on the low table in front of the settee, and O'Kane's estimation of Hamilton, already high, shot up another notch. "Oh, hello, Edward," the doctor purred, coming up off the edge of his desk to take O'Kane's hand and give it a squeeze. "We were just about to begin."

Anyone watching this performance would have seen nothing but good nature and cordiality in that hand-squeeze, but O'Kane felt the black blood of anxiety and irritation pulsing through the doctor's fleshless fingers and the damp recess of his palm: O'Kane was in the wrong, he was late, he'd violated the dictum of the three p's and put everything in jeopardy. Despite all the doctor's warnings of the previous day, despite skipping breakfast and leaving the house early and wearing his tweeds and collar under the hospital whites to save time and keeping the apes hurtling through the crowded jungle of his mind, limb by limb and minute by minute, he was late. He'd gotten off on the wrong foot. Already.

Awkward, red-faced, too big for his shrinking suit and towering over the room like some club-wielding troglodyte, O'Kane could only duck his head and mumble an apology. He saw that Mrs. McCormick was already there--the younger Mrs. McCormick, the wife, not the mother. She was running the show now, and the older Mrs. McCormick, Mr. McCormick's mother, was back in Chicago, sitting on her golden nest and laying her golden eggs and counting up the dividends. As far as Stanley's--Mr. McCormick's--care was concerned, she'd left the field to the younger woman. For the moment, at least.

Since O'Kane wasn't wearing a hat or overcoat, it was just a matter of giving his tie a quick twist and bending from the waist to greet Mrs. McCormick and the woman who seemed at that instant to have sprung up beside her on the settee. He was momentarily confused. It seemed he was always confused in Mrs. McCormick's presence, whether he was holding the door for her like a lackey as she stepped regally into the front hall at White Street or trying his aphasic best to respond to one of her multitiered questions about her husband's progress--or lack of it. She was a society lady, that's what she was, cold as a walking corpse, all fur, feathers and stone, and O'Kane wasn't part of society. Not by a long shot. He wasn't even part of the society that aspired to be part of society. He was a working man, son of a working man, grandson of a working man, and on and on all the way back to the apes--or Adam and Eve, whichever you believed in. Still, every time he saw her, locked in the cold hard glittering shell of her Back Bay beauty, it made him ache to be something he wasn't, to impress her or make her laugh or lean in close and whisper something filthy in her ear, and it took a tremendous effort of will simply to bend forward and touch his fingertips to her gloved hand and then turn to the older woman beside her, a woman with a face like a squashed bird framed in the riot of feathers that was her hat, a woman he knew as well as his own mother but couldn't ... quite ... seem to--

But then he was seated--in the chair closest to the fire--an inoffensive smile attached to his face, the sweat already starting up again under his arms, and he had a moment to catch his breath and let recollection come roaring back at him. This older lady, the one dressed like a funeral director's wife, was Mrs. McCormick's mother, Mrs. Dexter. Of course she was. Dr. Hamilton was saying something now, but O'Kane wasn't listening. He worked his neck muscles and twitched his shoulders till he caught Mrs. Dexter's attention and broadened his smile to a kind of blissful grimace. "And a good morning to you, Mrs. Dexter," he said, hearing his father's Killarney brogue creeping into his own booming, baleful voice, though he tried to fight it down.

Dr. Hamilton paused in the middle of whatever he'd been saying to give him an odd look. "And to you, Mr. O'Kane," the old lady returned cheerily, and this seemed to reassure the doctor, so he went on.

"As I was saying, Mrs. McCormick, if the terms are acceptable to you--and your mother, of course--I think we have a bargain. I've spoken to Mrs. Hamilton and to the Thompson brothers, and they're all committed to the move--and to Mr. McCormick's care and welfare, of course. Edward, here, can speak for himself."

O'Kane shifted in his seat. He hadn't understood till that moment just how much this whole thing meant to him--it was a new start, a new life, in a part of the country as foreign to him as the dark side of the moon. But that was just it--it wasn't dark in California, and it didn't snow, and there was no slush and drizzle and there were no frozen clods of horse manure in the streets and life there didn't grind you down till you barely knew you were alive. A single acre of oranges could make a man comfortable--oranges that practically grew by themselves, without even the rumor of work, once they were in the ground--and ten acres could make a man rich. There was gold. There was oil. There was the Pacific. There was sun. "Oh, I'm committed, all right,ø he said, trying to avoid the wife's eyes.

How old was she, anyway? She couldn't have been much more than 30, and here he was, a lusty strong big-shouldered 190-pound Irishman from the North End who routinely stared down the craziest of the crazy, and he was afraid to look her in the eye? He made an effort and raised his head to take in the general vicinity of her. "Even if it means forever."

"And your wife--Mrs. O'Kane?" At first he thought the voice had come out of the ceiling, as voices tended to do for so many of the unfortunates on the ward, but then he realized that the old lady was moving her lips. He tried to look alert as the birdy face closed on him. "How does she feel about it?"

"Rose?" The question took him by surprise. He saw his wife in the kitchen of the walkup, stirring a pot of broth and potatoes, ignorant as a shoe, contentious and coarse and loud--but goodhearted, as goodhearted as any girl you'd find, and the mother of his son. "I--I guess I haven't told her yet, but she'll be thrilled, I know she will."

"It'll mean leaving behind everything she knows--her parents, her relations, her former schoolmates, the streets where she grew up," Mrs. Dexter persisted, and what did she want from him anyway? They were both watching him, mother and daughter, and they were two birds--both of them--beaky and watchful, waiting for the faintest stirring in the grass. "And where did you say she was from?"

He hadn't said. He was tempted to say Beacon Hill, to give an address on Commonwealth Avenue, but he didn't. "Charlestown," he mumbled, staring down at his wet and glistening shoes. He could feel the eyes of the younger one boring into him.

"And for you too," the old woman said. "Are you prepared to say good-bye to your own mother and father--and for as long as it takes for Mr. McCormick to be well again?"

There was a silence. The fire snapped, and he felt the heat of it chasing the steam from his cuffs and flanks and the shrinking shoulders of his jacket. "Yes, ma'am," he said, darting a glance at the younger woman. "I think so. I really do."

And then, thankfully, Hamilton took over. "The important thing," he said, or rather, whispered in the narcotic tones he used on his charges, "is Mr. McCormick. The sooner we're able to move the patient and establish him in the proper way in California, the better it will be for all concerned. Especially the patient. What he needs, above all, is a tranquil environment, with all the stresses that led to his blocking removed. Only then can we hope to--" He faltered. Mrs. McCormick had cleared her throat--that was all: cleared her throat--and that stopped him cold.

Dr. Hamilton--Dr. Gilbert Van Tassel Hamilton, future author of Sex in Marriage, as well as "A Study of Sexual Tendencies in Monkeys and Baboons"--was a young man then, just thirty-one, but he cultivated a Vandyke and swept his dun-colored hair straight back from his brow in an attempt to add something to his years. He wore a pair of steel-rimmed pince nez identical to the president's, and he always dressed carefully in ash-colored suits and waistcoats and a tie that was such an unfathomable shade of blue it might as well have been black, as if any show of color would undermine his sense of duty and high purpose. ("Avoid bright clothing," he'd admonished O'Kane on the day he hired him; "it tends to excite the catatonics and alarm the paranoics.") Young as he was, he was a rock of solidity, but for one disconcerting little tic that he himself might not have been aware of: every thirty seconds or so his eyes would flick back behind his upper lids in a spasm so instantaneous it was like watching a slot machine on its final revolution. Needless to say, when he was nervous or wrought up the tic became more pronounced. Now, as he looked expectantly at Mrs. McCormick, his pupils began a quavering preliminary little dance.

O'Kane was looking at her too. He couldn't help but look at her, as long as it didn't involve eye contact. She was fascinating to him, a real specimen, the kind of woman you saw only in glimpses--a silhouette behind the windowscreen of the long thrusting miracle of a Packard motorcar, a brisk commanding figure in a cluster of doormen and porters, the face of a photograph in a book--and how could he help contrasting her with his own Rosaleen? Sitting there perched on the very fractional edge of the settee with her finishing-school posture and her cleft chin stuck up in the air like a weathervane, wearing a dress of some satiny blue material that probably cost more than he would make in six months, she was like an alien, like the shining representative of some new and superior species, but for one thing: her husband was mad, as mad as the Apron Man or Katzakis the Greek or any of them, and all the manners and all the money in the world couldn't change that.

"About the apes ... ," she said, and O'Kane realized it was the first time she'd opened her mouth since he'd entered the room.

Hamilton's voice fell away to nothing, the whisper of a whisper. "Yes?" he breathed, lounging back against the corner of the desk and resting his weight casually on his left ham, the doctor in his office, nothing the matter, nothing at all. "What about them? If there's anything that you--"

"They are necessary, aren't they--in your estimation, Dr. Hamilton? I understand that in order to lure such a promising young psychologist as yourself all the way out to the West Coast and uproot your family and your practice here at McLean, there has to be a quid pro quo"--and here she held up a finger to silence him, because he was up off the desk again and his mouth was already working in the nest of his beard--"and that your hominoid laboratory is a major part of it, in addition to your salary considerations, relocation expenses and the like, but is there really any hope of these apes figuring in Stanley's cure?"

This was Hamilton's cue, and with barely a flick of his eyes, he launched into a speech that would have done a drummer proud. He made no promises--her husband's case was more complex than anyone had originally believed, far more complex--but he'd personally supervised dozens of cases just as severe and he'd seen those patients make huge steps toward recovery, even complete recovery, with the proper care. New advances were being made not only in the treatment of dementia praecox--or schizophrenia, as it was now more commonly called--but across the whole spectrum of human behavior and psychology, and new figures like Freud, Jung and Adler had begun to emerge to build on the work of Charcot, Krafft-Ebing, Havelock Ellis and Magnus Hirschfeld. O'Kane had heard it all before, and he found himself drifting, the heat making him drowsy, the heavy material of his trousers adhering to his flanks like a second skin--and itching, itching like the very devil. Hamilton's voice droned on, hypnotic, soporific, the gloom beyond the windows like the backdrop of a waking dream. He came back to himself when the doctor finally got round to the question of the apes.

"--and while the behavioral sciences are in their infancy," Hamilton was saying, "and ours will be among the first hominoid laboratories in the world, Katherine" (Katherine, he was calling her Katherine now), "I really and truly do expect that my intensive study of the lower primates will lead to any number of breakthroughs in human behavior, particularly with regard to sexual tendencies."

Ah, and now it was out of the bag, O'Kane thought, the crux of the matter, the subject you don't discuss in mixed company, the thing men and women discover together in the dark. He watched the wife's perfectly composed face, with its stingy lips and little turned-up nose and sculpted ears, for a reaction. There was nothing. Not a flicker. She was a scientist herself--the first female baccalaureate in the sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology--and no quirk of the human organism could ruffle her. She was made of ice. Layers of it, mountains--she was a glacier in human form, an Ice Queen, that's what she was.

"Yes, I understand," she said, pursing her lips and shooting a look at O'Kane that wilted him on the spot, as if he were the one who'd brought up the subject, "but apes are one thing and human beings quite another. I really don't see how any discovery you make as to the"--and here she paused, for just a beat--"sexual proclivities of apes and monkeys can be applied to my husband's case. I just fail to see it."

This was a critical juncture, and O'Kane, impelled by the heat of the fire, the closeness of the room and the sudden fear that the whole thing--orange trees, bungalow and all--was about to collapse like a house of cards, suddenly plunged in with a speech of his own. "But we'll take the best care of him, ma'am, I and the Thompson brothers and Dr. Hamilton and Dr. Meyer too. He asks for us specially, you know, and we feel a real ... a real compassion for him that we don't always feel with the other patients ... he's such a gentleman, I mean, and bound to improve. And I admit I don't know the first thing about apes--hominoids, that is--but I'm young and willing and I can learn, I can. You'll see."

There was a silence. Mrs. McCormick--Katherine--looked startled, as if the chair or the hat rack had suddenly begun to speak, but the old lady seemed satisfied--she had a sort of fixed benevolent old lady's smile pasted to her lips--and Dr. Hamilton, his eyes jumping, paused only to stroke his beard for effect before coming in with the heavy artillery. 'That's right, Edward: it will be a learning process for all of us, and for the sciences in general, and beyond the good we'll do for Mr. McCormick, we have an excellent chance of doing somet

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Interviews & Essays

Before the live bn.com chat, T. Coraghessan Boyle agreed to answer some of our questions:

Q:  You have been called "America's most imaginative contemporary novelist." Who would you consider a few of America's best contemporary writers?

A:  Mary Gaitskill, Richard Ford, Ellen Gilchrist, Denis Johnson, Louise Erdrich, Don DeLillo, and 6,000 others I can't think of right now because of the senile dementia afflicting me as I approach 50.

Q:  How do you like living in sunny southern California?

A:  In an early song, Jim Morrison said, "The West is the best." He was right. I am now living in the garden paradise of the earth, just down the street from where Stanley McCormick lived out his sad life. I enjoy the scenery he did, minus the hellish schizophrenic visions. Plus, living here enables me to torment all my friends on the East Coast right about this time of year [January]. Our local newspaper features the weather for the next five days by means of a symbolic sun. If it's cloudy, the sun is partially obscured, if it rains, we see tiny droplets, etc. Well, I wait for a week like this one, with five little unobscured bright and beatific suns, and then I clip out the entire feature, replete with temperature (70 degrees or so) and mail it to my dear friends in the refrigerated regions.

Q:  Did you do a lot of research on asylums for this novel? Do you have an opinion on their current state here in the United States?

A:  Yes, I did a good deal of research on mental illness and its treatment at the turn of the century, and discovered some hair-raising stories of patient abuse. As far as today is concerned, I don't know much about the state of mental hospitals, but of course, we've discovered the genetic and biological roots of many mental afflictions, and are able to treat them with drugs. This was not possible in Stanley's day. Ironically, his wife, Katherine, was on the right track when she insisted that Dr. Kempf treat her husband's schizophrenia not simply by Freudian methods but by somatic methods as well.

Q:  Who would you consider your literary influences?

A:  My literary influences are legion. Among the many (and most obvious): Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Pynchon, Gunter Grass, Samuel Beckett, Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, John Barth, Charles Dickens, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortazar, Kurt Vonnegut, John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, and many, many others.

Q:  Okay, let us have it: What's the secret to keeping romance alive?

A:  A positive attitude toward life. And, of course, it helps to be a vegetarian.

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Reading Group Guide


Poor Stanley McCormick. The depraved son of one of the greatest inventors of the nineteenth century, Stanley is doomed to spend most of his life confined to an enormous estate in Southern California while his wife, Katherine, spares no expense searching for the doctor who can cure him. For two decades Stanley leads a limited existence at Riven Rock, accompanied by a group of well-paid nurses, gardeners, cooks, and psychologists. And as the world outside struggles with war and disease, survives physical and economic disaster, and witnesses dramatic social change, Stanley continues to make diminutive steps toward achieving a normal life while his millions continue to pile up. Unfortunately, even Stanley's considerable wealth won't buy him his sanity or freedom from the luxurious prison that he helped build.

But Stanley's palatial prison is just one of many ironies contained in this whimsical work of historical fiction -- and which characterize it as a truly Boyle-esque tale. There is Katherine's steadfast fidelity to a marriage that was never consummated; Eddie, the philandering playboy, who tosses his conquests aside as soon as he tires of them, but who hungers for the one woman he can't have; and Stanley's violent, sexual aggression towards women, whom he loves with "an incendiary passion that is indistinguishable from hate." Boyle also manages to inject notes of high hilarity into what is basically a very sad story. The various doctors with their respective theories and styles could have stepped out of a Marx Brothers musical, as could the scene in which Katherine accompanies Julius the ape to an elegant hotel. And Stanley's treatment of the poor German teacher he drags home to please Katherine is as comical as it is heartbreaking. Another technique typically employed by Boyle is hyperbole. The author often populates his novels with larger-than-life figures: the richest man in America, the most clueless of doctors, the most overbearing of mothers, and, in the case of Katherine, a woman possessing the kind of intellectual brilliance and strength of character that, almost by necessity, accompanies a blind insensitivity to the needs of someone as fragile as Stanley. Irony, comedy, and hyperbole render this and Boyle's other novels unforgettable, transforming an historic footnote into a luminous, illuminating work of fiction that says as much about contemporary America as it does about the historical figures it depicts.

It is the role of the literary historian to paint a vivid picture from the outlines that fact provides. But the writer who chooses to use true life as a springboard toward a largely imagined story faces, perhaps, a greater challenge. He or she must impose on the facts moods and themes that feel organic to the history they represent. T. C. Boyle has a wonderful talent for turning history into fiction. In Riven Rock, as with his earlier novel, The Road to Wellville, Boyle starts with a germ of fact and a few larger-than-life personalities and spins a marvelous tale -- the details of which can strain credulity. (According to Boyle, some of the most outrageous incidents in this novel are actually true.) But he has chosen to keep his readers in the dark about where history ends and fiction begins. So be it. In his capable hands, deft as a magician's, we are willing to suspend disbelief.


The award-winning author of seven novels and four collections of short stories, T. Coraghessan Boyle was born in Peekskill, New York and taught high school English there after graduating from the State University of New York at Potsdam. He continued his education at the University of Iowa's famed Writers' Workshop, where he finished Descent of Man, his first collection of short fiction. He went on to publish three others -- Greasy Lake, If the River Was Whiskey, and Without a Hero -- establishing himself as a master of the genre. Over the past two decades, T. C. Boyle has also written several wonderfully diverse novels: Water Music, an 18th-century picaresque; Budding Prospects, about a group of hapless marijuana farmers; World's End, an historical novel about his native upstate New York for which he won the 1988 PEN/Faulkner Award for American Fiction; East Is East, about a Japanese sailor and a southern writers' colony; The Road to Wellville, a comic look at a turn-of-the-century health spa; and The Tortilla Curtain, about ethnic strife in Southern California.

T. C. Boyle currently makes his home near Santa Barbara, California, not far from the McCormick estate. Since 1977 he has been a professor of English at the University of Southern California. His newest collection, T. C. Boyle Stories, including seven stories not previously published in book form, was published by Viking in November 1998.


Q: This is your fourth historical novel, after Water Music, World's End and The Road to Wellville. How have you developed as a writer in this genre? Over the years, what have you learned about writing historical fiction?

A: To my mind, I'm not writing historical novels -- in the conventional sense, that is. I don't think the traditional historical novel works, because the historical impulse -- the research -- overwhelms the aesthetic vision. I'd say instead that I'm writing contemporary novels with historical settings. I'm more interested in how the past is reflected in the present than I am with replicating history. Then too, of course, there is my satirical bent -- I'm having good fun with our universal human foibles, those that persist from time immemorial. And so, we have The Road to Wellville, about our desire for eternal youth and health, not to mention the nostrums that go with it, or Riven Rock, about marriage and sexuality.

What have I learned? To let the story take precedence. In the case of Riven Rock, I am retelling a true story, one so bizarre -- and so much like a novel -- that my task is primarily to dramatize and illuminate it. That said, I nonetheless have to decide what to emphasize and what to play down, so as to allow the themes to develop.

Q: What are the differences in the way you approach writing contemporary fiction as opposed to historical fiction?

A: There really is no difference in the way I approach a novel with a historical setting from the way I might engage one with a contemporary setting -- The Tortilla Curtain or East Is East, for example. I come up with an idea -- or a subject, very broad in its scope -- and read and explore until it begins to narrow. Of course, with a novel set in current times, the metaphors are a bit easier because of the frame of reference -- in a historical piece, the author is constrained by the laws of anachronism. Usually. Though Stanley Elkin, in George Mills and elsewhere, was a wonderful exception. That is the beauty of writing fiction: there are no rules.

Q: How did you happen upon the story of Stanley and Katherine McCormick? What compelled you to write a novel about them?

A: This one is easy. I moved from the gloomy dystopia of L.A. and The Tortilla Curtain to the gloomy utopia of Santa Barbara and Riven Rock. I discovered that those emerald hills of the Santa Ynez range conceal a whole psychopathologia of sad and refreshingly bizarre tales. The story of Katherine and Stanley came to me courtesy of our local newspaper and a book about the great estates of Montecito. What intrigues me most about their story is what is revealed in the first line of the prologue: what would it be like for a man to be removed from the sight and company of women for twenty years? And more, and worse: what would it be like for the wife of such a man?

Q: How did the character of Eddie O'Kane emerge? Did you always mean for him to play such a pivotal role in the novel?

A: Eddie O'Kane. Again, here is where the art of the novel takes precedence over the factuality of the story as historical sources report it. My problem: how does one center a novel around a schizophrenic "sexual maniac" who assaults women on sight? And how does one make such a character ultimately sympathetic, more a victim of his mental illness -- and upbringing -- than a villain? The obvious answer is to explore his mind, as I attempt to do, but also to view him from the outside. Katherine -- and Eddie O'Kane, an invented character -- give me the ability to do this. The fact is that Stanley had several male nurses, and four in particular with whom he was quite close -- the four who came with him from Massachusetts. The fiction is Eddie. He became, for me, Stanley's alter ego, his döppelganger: a man considered perfectly normal despite his casual brutality toward and mistrust of the women he loves. His descendants are out there right now, their elbows propped up on the polished mahogany of every club and singles bar in America. Fortunately (for me, for Eddie, and for the story), he grew up and became humanized by a mature relationship with the indomitable and irresistible Giovanella Dimucci (and who could resist a woman with a name like that?).

Q: You have said that, in writing Riven Rock, you wanted to explore issues of fidelity and loyalty. With that objective, how did you develop Stanley's and Katherine's relationship?

A: Katherine, in my mind, is the protagonist of this story. Her marriage was tragic -- as dysfunctional as any marriage ever, aside maybe from the point of view of some of Bluebeard's wives -- but she was too strong to be broken by it. Too strong, perhaps, to give in to love in the first place. And yet she believed in her marriage vows, in duty and obligation and love -- as odd as it may seem to us today, with our casual alliances and disposable marriages. She did love Stanley, because there was some essential core of innocence and sweetness to him that his disease obscured, and while his confinement gave her the excuse to travel in society (almost as if she were a widow) and to pursue her interests in the cause of feminism, she nonetheless protected him and sought a cure for him to the end of his life.

Q: What did your research teach you about Stanley's mental illness -- and schizophrenia in general? How do you think this treatment would have been different if he were alive today?

A: My research in psychiatry confirmed what I'd believed at the outset: that schizophrenia is an inherited disease. But my re-reading of Freud was instructive: fashion (and the idiocy of the politically correct) aside, Stanley's sexual problem, layered atop his schizophrenia, is classically Freudian. But it was more than reading that gave me my insight into Stanley -- I have had two close friends who are schizophrenic, and I drew on my recollections of them to try to grasp the way in which Stanley perceived the world.

As for the second part of the question, it's obvious that we understand schizophrenia a great deal better than did the psychiatrists represented in this book. I don't expect Stanley would have been "cured" today, but certainly pharmaceutical treatment would have meliorated some of his suffering.

Q: If Riven Rock were written as pure fiction, how do you think you would have changed the story? Do you ever feel impeded by the facts when you are writing historical fiction?

A: An interesting question. And an impossible one to answer. As I've said above, I was attracted to the story because it is true, because it is a novel in truth -- we respond to stories because they reflect something valid about us and our experience. That said, I do not feel at all constrained to "stick to the facts" when writing a story based on an actual incident. I am not a reporter, nor a historian or a biographer. I am a novelist, trying to make sense of my own life and feelings and thoughts, growing, with each story and novel, toward some sort of apprehension of human life on this planet.

Q: Comedy figures largely in all your fiction. Why is that? What do you think makes a writer "funny?"

A: Comedy is my mode of dealing with tragedy and despair. What do we call it -- gallows humor? Black humor? Sardonic, bleak, stripped-to-the-bone humor? I do feel that the tragic and poignant can be made even more powerful, more affecting, if the writer takes the reader by surprise, that is, puts him or her into a comic universe and then introduces the grimmest sort of reality. Flannery O'Connor taught me this, in stories like "Good Country People" and "A Good Man is Hard to Find," and especially in a novel like Wise Blood.

What makes a writer funny is hard to define in the abstract -- we know it when we see it, and roar, shake and slobber in response. And we know when an unfunny writer -- an unfunny person -- attempts to be funny and falls flat. I don't know. I guess comedy is inbred, part of a writer's gifts, an individual way of seeing the world and revealing it in such a way that others see it too. But listen to me. I'll try again: comedy is organic to the work, just as the characters, plot, and metaphors are -- you can't force it or it falls flat. Yes?


"A sustained, wise and enthralling portrait of America's lost past. . . . The author's best and perhaps most unusual book." -- San Francisco Chronicle

"Filled with good writing and richly observed scenes; it has humanity and humor in abundance." -- D. M. Thomas, The New York Times Book Review

"Boyle combines his gift for historical re-creation with his dazzling powers as a storyteller. . . . Riven Rock is as romantic as it is informative, as colorful as it is convincing." -- The Boston Sunday Globe

"Boyle's most affecting book. . . . His dialogue is tone-perfect. His storytelling . . . is mesmerizing." -- New York Newsday

"Deftly plotted. . . The craziest love story imaginable, but a love story nevertheless. . . one that chills the bones as you read . . . . Vintage Boyle." -- Kirkus Reviews


  1. How does Boyle introduce historical facts into the novel to move it along? Which of the period's prevalent issues does he bring to light? What, if anything, did you learn about America in the early part of this century? Do you think fiction is a good way to teach history?
  2. Discuss your feelings toward Stanley McCormick. Does his particular type of insanity -- with its manifestations of lewd behavior and violence toward women -- make him less sympathetic? Do you feel sorry for Stanley? Do you think he is unhappy?
  3. Compare the characters of Stanley and Eddie. Is Stanley's treatment of women different and/or worse than Eddie's? When Eddie is in the throes of alcoholism, is he any more sane than Stanley? Do you think Eddie is good for Stanley? Vice versa?
  4. How real is Katherine's love for Stanley? Why is she so insistent on preserving their marriage? Why do you think she fell in love with Stanley in the first place? How do you reconcile her feminist views with her steadfast loyalty to a man with so many problems?
  5. Issues of fidelity and loyalty figure prominently in the book. How are each of the major characters -- Katherine, Stanley, and Eddie -- alternately faithful and unfaithful, loyal and disloyal to others in their lives? Who is the most faithful? Who is the most loyal?
  6. What do you think of the different doctors hired to treat Stanley? Aside from the comic relief they provide, what schools of thought does each represent?
  7. Discuss Boyle's use of flashbacks in the novel. Do these passages detract from the story or promote its progress? How would the novel have been different if it were presented chronologically?
  8. Like many of Boyle's novels, Riven Rock is filled with examples of opposite extremes -- Puritanism and overt sexuality, refined and extremely base behavior, honesty and dishonesty, poverty and wealth -- and with incidents that can strain credulity. What do you think of Boyle's use of hyperbole?
  9. How does knowing that Boyle's book is based on history alter the way you read the novel? Did you wonder which incidents were based on fact and which on fiction? Would you prefer to know or are you satisfied not knowing?
  10. Riven Rock is the actual name of the McCormick estate in California, yet Boyle manages to wrap the narrative around the image its name conjures up. How does he incorporate into the novel the metaphor of a rock split in two? What -- or who -- are the novel's "riven rocks"?
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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 22, 2005

    Fascinating if flawed

    Maybe the most important comment I can make about this book is that I couldn't put it down -- not in the sense that it's a simple page-turner, but in the sense that Boyle is a very gifted writer who really knows how to tell a story, and it's a fascinating story at that. My only complaints are that the excess that serves Boyle so well in his comic writing occasionally feels melodramatic or trite in this serious effort (though more often the prose is wonderful), the story gets repetitious at times and could have benefited from a little tightening, and an occasional scene strains credulity or seems contrived. But these are niggling points: Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel and was sorry when it ended. Boyle has accomplished no small feat here. Recommended!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 27, 2002

    Bizarre, Wicked Humor and a Love Story too!

    My god, the opening paragraph alone makes this book impossible to put down: 'For 20 years, 20 long dull repetitive years that dripped by with the sleepy incessant murmur of water dripping from a gutter, Stanley McCormick never laid eyes on a woman. Not his mother, not his sisters, not his wife. No nurse or librarian, no girl in pigtails on her way to school, no spinster sweeping her porch or housewife haggling with the grocer, no slut, flapper or suffragette. It wasn't a matter of choice. Stanley loved his mother, his wife, his sisters, he loved other people's mothers, wives, sisters and daughters, but he loved them too much, loved them with an incendiary passion that was like hate. that was indistinguishable from hate, and it was that loving and hating that fomented all his troubles and thrust him headlong into a world without women.' This is a gripping read, and T.C. Boyle is one of the most surprising and stunning writers of our time. This book will stay with you long after you put it down. Don't be surprised if you have to tell everyone you know to read it.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 27, 2003

    entertaining and bewildering

    This book was a strange one. I couldn't help but think of Katherine Dunn as I was making my way through it. Although Boyle's theatrical restraint is much more developed than Ms. Dunn's. It's story of Stanley McCormick slowly going bananas isn't really all there is to it. He contrasts the themes of loyalty and infidelity, both taken to the extreme. I waited for a resolution or for a didactic ending, but it never came. I enjoyed this book.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 5, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Little slow

    OK kind of boring

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 14, 2006

    difficult to get into the reading

    This author was recommended and the choices of material this author writes about spark my interest, especially since I grew up in Santa Barbara however, I had a very difficult time getting into the book. While the subject matter is very interesting, I found the reading cumbersome and frankly boring. I tried several times to read this book, but ended up frustrated from the author's endless descriptions of every single detail. I wanted him to get to the point! I ended up reading about the characters in other books & on-line material and felt much more satisfied.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 12, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted November 27, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted August 5, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted September 16, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted May 1, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted May 27, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews

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