- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
From Barnes & NobleLiterary Liberace
In 1988, while still a lowly grad student, I managed for one night to get fraudulently admitted to the grown-ups' table of American literature. I scored a ticket to the PEN/Faulkner Awards dinner, in the banquet hall of a tony D.C. prep school, only because one of my teachers was an officer at PEN and kind enough to give unused news-media tickets to a couple of us whom she thought could use the free meal. We were the equivalent of Oscar-night seat-fillers.
Though I'd had off-and-on exposure to real writers (teachers; people who came to the area to give readings), the PEN/Faulkner dinner was the first time I'd ever been to a true gathering of literati. Except for an encounter with Norman Mailer at an adjoining urinal (and a brief ensuing conversation too profane to recount without incurring the wrath of NetNanny), I was too intimidated to talk to anyone.
Since its inception in 1980, the PEN/Faulkner has had the reputation as the writer's writer award, judged always by other fiction writers, given typically to veteran, consummate craftspeople (such as Peter Taylor or Gina Berriault) or daring younger writers (John Edgar Wideman, before anyone much had ever heard of him, or, last year, Rafi Zabor, for his first novel). It's presented at a banquet that (unlike, say, the National Book Award's) is not crawling with denizens of the New York publishing world and members of the working press.
And so it was that I wound up at one of a mere two tables designated for media (making me the unworking press, which sounds like a thing a man with wrinkled trousers would have; in fact, my trousers were fresh from the cleaners, even after the encounter with Mailer). The only national media people were NPR's Susan Stamberg and Roger Mudd, best known for years of being Walter Cronkite's permanent guest host on the "CBS Evening News."
Dinner was served. Then the winner was announced: T. Coraghessan Boyle, for World's End. Boyle bounded up the stairs to the stage. Anyone over 5'6" probably qualifies for admission to the taller 50 percent of American writers, which made the rail-thin, 6'3" Boyle a startling giant. He was dressed in a sportcoat that he insisted was really purchased at Liberace's yard sale.
As was the custom, Boyle, by way of acceptance, read briefly from his work. It was a new short story (now collected in T. C. Boyle Stories) called "Hard Sell." The story is an amphetiminal dramatic monologue, spoken into a cell phone by an L.A. PR flack complaining to a colleague about a client.
At the line three paragraphs in, identifying the client -- "Then the Ayatollah looked at me" -- Roger Mudd, the most dignified-looking man in the Republic, did a robust spit take.
Halfway through the story, the ballroom was full of laughter. Mudd was red-faced and having trouble breathing. He collapsed at one point onto the shoulder of the equally convulsed Stamberg. As the story reached its conclusion, I was quite, quite certain I was about to witness poor Mr. Mudd pee his pants.
That's as good a story as I know to explain T. Coraghessan Boyle (he made up the unpronounceable middle name -- accent on the second syllable -- because there already was a novelist named Thomas Boyle; his last two books have, on their jackets, resorted to T. C.) and his productively warring impulses.
He is a serious talent, nowhere more evident than in his best novels, of which World's End, the darkly funny multigenerational Hudson Valley saga, strikes me as the most fully realized. Like any contemporary American writer nominally in the game, he's interested in using and being used by history: The Ayatollah is, in Boyle's oeuvre, in the company of such other historical figures as Jane Austen, Robert Johnson, Jack Kerouac, President Eisenhower and Nina Krushchev, Lassie, John Harvey Kellogg ("discoverer of the cornflake"), and Mungo Park ("discoverer" of the Niger). He is also a stand-up comic on the page, mining a vein of satire largely abandoned since Woody Allen stopped writing fiction; in fact, Allen's "The Kugelmass Episode," a postmodern semi-sequel to Madame Bovary, blazes a trail for Boyle's equally delightful treatments of Gogol's The Overcoat ("The Overcoat II") and Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls ("Me Cago in la Leche [Robert Jordan in Nicaragua]").
Boyle's best novels, to my mind, are those where he's most successful at maintaining the precarious and essentially impossible balance between his desire to be big-I Important and big-F Funny. World's End is probably Boyle's most demanding book, awash in dozens of characters and the particular history of the settlement of the Hudson Valley. It's also one of the best novels to feature a severed-extremity motif.
While World's End does amply reward the reader's attention, less patient readers might start with my two other favorites: Water Music, about Park's strange, hilarious journey into Africa; and The Road to Wellville, about Kellogg's health fanaticism and the odd way it set a tone for this American century (forget the dreadful movie; read the book).
But Boyle's warring sensibilities are both the making of his best novels and the undoing of his lesser ones. What makes his collections of short stories the perfect introduction to his work is that he doesn't have to sustain any sort of balance between his impulses. As a reader I'm happy -- giddily so -- to read a joke-story like "Hard Sell" and then turn the page and confront realistic fiction of the highest order, as in stories like "Greasy Lake" or "If the River Was Whiskey." The depth and breadth of Boyle's encyclopedic knowledge of postwar pop culture is more apparent in these books, too, delivering the news on such matters as restaurant reviewing ("Sorry Fugu"), or on eco-paranoia ("Hopes Rise"), or modern love ("Without a Hero" and "Modern Love"). If an element of Boyle's obsessions leaves you cold, you can turn the page: The next story will be different.
While all of Boyle's four previous collections are winning amalgams of his intelligence, erudition, and shameless humor, the book to get is the newly published T. C. Boyle Stories, which comprises those books in toto, plus seven new stories. The sheer onslaught of the stories is too much to absorb straight through, but as off-and-on bedside reading for the next few months, a gift for the sadly uninitiated, or a generous introduction to the only man at the grown-ups' table of American lit who's wearing Liberace's dinner jacket, it's indispensable.
Adult diaper not included.