T. C. Boyle Stories

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Overview

T. C. Boyle is one of the most inventive and wickedly funny short story writers at work today. Over the course of twenty-five years, Boyle has built up a body of short fiction that is remarkable in its range, richness, and exuberance. His stories have won accolades for their irony and black humor, for their verbal pyrotechnics, for their fascination with everything bizarre and queasy, and for the razor-sharp way in which they dissect America's obsession with image and materialism. Gathered together here are all ...

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Overview

T. C. Boyle is one of the most inventive and wickedly funny short story writers at work today. Over the course of twenty-five years, Boyle has built up a body of short fiction that is remarkable in its range, richness, and exuberance. His stories have won accolades for their irony and black humor, for their verbal pyrotechnics, for their fascination with everything bizarre and queasy, and for the razor-sharp way in which they dissect America's obsession with image and materialism. Gathered together here are all of the stories that have appeared in his four previous collections, as well as seven that have never before appeared in book form. Together they comprise a book of small treasures, a definitive gift for Boyle fans and for every reader ready to discover the "ferocious, delicious imagination" (Los Angeles Times Book Review) of a "vibrant sensibility fully engaged with American society" (The New York Times).

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Literary 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.

Mark Winegardner

Susan Jackson
If you like Boyle's twisted sensibility and gallows humor, this is a must-have compendium. If you haven't yet read him, just delve into this fat collection, which is divided according to the themes 'Love,' 'Death,' 'And Everything in Between.' It doesn't matter where you start -- the stories are all funny. -- Time Out New York
Wall Street Journal
Boyle is a dazzling writer, a hugely exuberant, infinetely capable storyteller . . . where lesser talents run out of subjects after their first or second efforts, Mr. Boyle's got a million of them.
The New York Times
Boyle is capable of shifting scales from the lyrical to the vernacular, the literary to the mundane without the slightest strain . . . the best of his stories not only make the reader see, they also make the reader hear and smell and feel.
Jim Shepard
Everything is here, each of the stories from Boyle's four previous collections plus seven new stories. . .the blasphemous and the hilarious, the maddening and the moving, the weak and the strong. . . .he's always trying on voices and forms, rummaging through the toy box and pulling out, for his own purposes, other people's shticks. —The New York Times Book Review
Chicago Tribune
Few writers now at work have a wider set of referents, a broader comic range. Boyle has the tale-teller's gift in abundance.
Washington Post
One of the most gifted writers of his generation.
Library Journal
This retrospective collection assembles all the short fiction of California postmodernist Boyle, including some early magazine work that has not previously appeared in book form. The tales are arranged thematically instead of chronologically, in three broad categories: "Love," "Death," and "And Everything in Between." Most are lightweight riffs on pop culture icons in the tradition of Max Apple's The Oranging of America (1976). In "I Dated Jane Austen," from 1977, the tee-shirted narrator chauffeurs Miss Austen to a punk club in his Alfa Romeo. "Beat" (1993) imagines Jack Kerouac and his mother sharing a bottle of Mogen David wine and listening to Bing Crosby records on Christmas Eve, 1958. "The Rapture of the Deep" (1995) is the story of Jacques Cousteau's mutinous galley chef. Boyle works in the self-consciously hip, name-dropping style of Jay Leyner and stand-up comedian Dennis Miller. Unfortunately, the thematic grouping used in his anthology emphasizes the formulaic aspects of Boyle's fiction and makes its manic inventiveness seem forced and predictable.
Chicago Tribune
Few writers now at work have a wider set of referents, a broader comic range. Boyle has the tale-teller's gift in abundance.
The Washington Post
One of the most gifted writers of his generation.
Jim Shepard
Everything is here, each of the stories from Boyle's four previous collections plus seven new stories. . .the blasphemous and the hilarious, the maddening and the moving, the weak and the strong. . . .he's always trying on voices and forms, rummaging through the toy box and pulling out, for his own purposes, other people's shticks. -- The New York Times Book Review
Darina Molloy
Happily, in Boyle's stories, normality was never less boring. -- Irish America Magazine
Kirkus Reviews
A fine, fat gathering of 68 stories, including the contents of Boyle's four collections (Without a Hero), four more, uncollected, tales, and three previously unpublished. The pieces are grouped thematically, under the conveniently broad headings 'Love,' 'Death,' and 'And Everything in Between.' Even this organizing device carries a whiff of Boyle's ironic sensibility and bold, resonant voice. He's a satirist, of course, with a deadly eye for faddishness and pretension, but he's primarily an inventor whose outrageous narrative premises pay homage to the spirit of Groucho Marx and the examples of such predecessors as the British fantasist John Collier and our own Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover. The volume begins with 'Modern Love,' Boyle's triumphantly wry take on contemporary sexual timidity, and ends just as enjoyably with his loopy burlesque of conspicuous consumption and suburban guilt, Filthy with Things. Along the way, it's fun to re-encounter his mischievous revisionist portrayals of well-known figures: Dwight Eisenhower fixated on Mrs. Khrushchev ('Ike and Nina'); a retrograde Lassie ('Heart of a Champion'); Mao-Tse-Tung in fine physical fettle ('The Second Swimming'); and Carrie Nation in full eruption ('John Barleycorn Lives'). There are also acute comic distortions of politics ('The New Moon Party'), pop culture ('All Shook Up'), the sex wars ('A Woman's Restaurant'), and science and technology run amok ('Descent of Man," 'De Rerum Natura')—as well as pitch-perfect homages to Kafka ('The Fog Man"), Hemingway ('Robert Jordan in Nicaragua'), and Gogol ('The Overcoat II'). Of the newer stories, 'I Dated Jane Austen' is in Boyle's best gently mock-heroicvein, and 'Little Fur People' observes with bemused tenderness a spinster's passion to save her beloved 'pet' squirrels. Boyle is of course too young for a summing-up, but this seems as good a time as any for a mid-career display of the antic wares of our most versatile and prolific radical comedian.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140280913
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 11/28/1999
  • Pages: 704
  • Sales rank: 488,267
  • Product dimensions: 6.05 (w) x 9.03 (h) x 1.51 (d)

Meet the Author

T. Coraghessan Boyle

T. C. Boyle is the author of eleven novels, including World's End (winner of the PEN/FaulknerAward), Drop City (a New York Times bestseller and finalist for the National Book Award), and The Inner Circle. His most recent story collections are Tooth and Claw and The Human Fly and Other Stories.

Biography

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

Modern Love 3
Ike and Nina 12
Sorry Fugu 21
Without a Hero 34
Heart of a Champion 46
Carnal Knowledge 53
Acts of God 69
Hopes Rise 85
Descent of Man 97
Caviar 106
All Shook Up 119
I Dated Jane Austen 133
Caye 138
Little Fur People 143
John Barleycorn Lives 156
The Hat 165
Whales Weep 178
A Women's Restaurant 189
Thawing Out 199
Back in the Eocene 210
Sitting on Top of the World 215
If the River Was Whiskey 228
Juliana Cloth 236
Big Game 245
Greasy Lake 261
Peace of Mind 269
King Bee 280
Sinking House 292
The Devil and Irv Cherniske 302
The Human Fly 314
On for the Long Haul 327
The 100 Faces of Death, Volume IV 342
Little America 350
Stones in My Passway, Hellhound on My Trail 360
The Hit Man 365
Not a Leg to Stand On 370
Green Hell 383
Me Cago en la Leche (Robert Jordan in Nicaragua) 395
The Ape Lady in Retirement 402
De Rerum Natura 416
The Extinction Tales 424
The Fog Man 430
Drowning 439
Rara Avis 445
The Overcoat II 449
Mexico 469
Beat 485
Hard Sell 497
The Miracle at Ballinspittle 502
Top of the Food Chain 510
The Hector Quesadilla Story 515
We Are Norsemen 525
The Champ 532
Bloodfall 538
Rupert Beersley and the Beggar Master of Sivani-Hoota 546
The New Moon Party 561
The Second Swimming 574
Dada 584
Two Ships 587
The Little Chill 597
A Bird in Hand 602
The Arctic Explorer 612
Rapture of the Deep 625
56-0 636
The Big Garage 647
Zapatos 661
Respect 666
Filthy with Things 675
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First Chapter

Chapter One

Love

MODERN LOVE

There was no exchange of body fluids on the first date, and that suited both of us just fine. I picked her up at seven, took her to Mee Grop, where she meticulously separated each sliver of meat from her Phat Thai, watched her down four bottles of Singha at three dollars per, and then gently stroked her balsam-smelling hair while she snoozed through The Terminator at the Circle Shopping Center theater. We had a late-night drink at Rigoletto's Pizza Bar (and two slices, plain cheese), and I dropped her off. The moment we pulled up in front of her apartment she had the door open. She turned to me with the long, elegant, mournful face of her Puritan ancestors and held out her hand.

    "It's been fun," she said.

    "Yes," I said, taking her hand.

    She was wearing gloves.

    "I'll call you," she said.

    "Good," I said, giving her my richest smile. "And I'll call you."

On the second date we got acquainted.

    "I can't tell you what a strain it was for me the other night," she said, staring down into her chocolate-mocha-fudge sundae. It was early afternoon, we were in Helmut's Olde Tyme Ice Cream Parlor in Mamaroneck, and the sun streamed through the thick frosted windows and lit the place like a convalescent home. The fixtures glowed behind the counter, the brass rail was buffed to a reflective sheen, and everything smelled of disinfectant. We were the only people in the place.

    "What do you mean?" I said, my mouth glutinous with melted marshmallow and caramel.

    "I mean Thai food, the seats in the movie theater, the ladies' room in that place for god's sake..."

    "Thai food?" I wasn't following her. I recalled the maneuver with the strips of pork and the fastidious dissection of the glass noodles. "You're a vegetarian?"

    She looked away in exasperation, and then gave me the full, wide-eyed shock of her ice-blue eyes. "Have you seen the Health Department statistics on sanitary conditions in ethnic restaurants?"

    I hadn't.

    Her eyebrows leapt up. She was earnest. She was lecturing. "These people are refugees. They have--well, different standards. They haven't even been inoculated." I watched her dig the tiny spoon into the recesses of the dish and part her lips for a neat, foursquare morsel of ice cream and fudge.

    "The illegals, anyway. And that's half of them." She swallowed with an almost imperceptible movement, a shudder, her throat dipping and rising like a gazelle's. "I got drunk from fear," she said. "Blind panic. I couldn't help thinking I'd wind up with hepatitis or dysentery or dengue fever or something."

    "Dengue fever?"

    "I usually bring a disposable sanitary sheet for public theaters--just think of who might have been in that seat before you, and how many times, and what sort of nasty festering little cultures of this and that there must be in all those ancient dribbles of taffy and Coke and extra-butter popcorn--but I didn't want you to think I was too extreme or anything on the first date, so I didn't. And then the ladies' room... You don't think I'm overreacting, do you?"

    As a matter of fact, I did. Of course I did. I liked Thai food--and sushi and ginger crab and greasy souvlaki at the corner stand too. There was the look of the mad saint in her eye, the obsessive, the mortifier of the flesh, but I didn't care. She was lovely, wilting, clear-eyed, and pure, as cool and matchless as if she'd stepped out of a Pre-Raphaelite painting, and I was in love. Besides, I tended a little that way myself. Hypochondria. Anal retentiveness. The ordered environment and alphabetized books. I was a thirty-three-year-old bachelor, I carried some scars and I read the newspapers--herpes, AIDS, the Asian clap that foiled every antibiotic in the book. I was willing to take it slow. "No," I said, "I don't think you're overreacting at all."

    I paused to draw in a breath so deep it might have been a sigh. "I'm sorry," I whispered, giving her a doglike look of contrition. "I didn't know."

    She reached out then and touched my hand--touched it, skin to skin--and murmured that it was all right, she'd been through worse. "If you want to know," she breathed, "I like places like this."

    I glanced around. The place was still empty, but for Helmut, in a blinding white jumpsuit and toque, studiously polishing the tile walls. "I know what you mean," I said.

* * *

We dated for a month--museums, drives in the country, French and German restaurants, ice-cream emporia, fern bars--before we kissed. And when we kissed, after a showing of David and Lisa at a revival house all the way up in Rhinebeck and on a night so cold no run-of-the-mill bacterium or commonplace virus could have survived it, it was the merest brushing of the lips. She was wearing a big-shouldered coat of synthetic fur and a knit hat pulled down over her brow and she hugged my arm as we stepped out of the theater and into the blast of the night. "God," she said, "did you see him when he screamed `You touched me!'? Wasn't that priceless?" Her eyes were big and she seemed weirdly excited. "Sure," I said, "yeah, it was great," and then she pulled me close and kissed me. I felt the soft flicker of her lips against mine. "I love you," she said, "I think."

    A month of dating and one dry fluttering kiss. At this point you might begin to wonder about me, but really, I didn't mind. As I say, I was willing to wait--I had the patience of Sisyphus--and it was enough just to be with her. Why rush things? I thought. This is good, this is charming, like the slow sweet unfolding of the romance in a Frank Capra movie, where sweetness and light always prevail. Sure, she had her idiosyncrasies, but who didn't? Frankly, I'd never been comfortable with the three-drinks-dinner-and-bed sort of thing, the girls who come on like they've been in prison for six years and just got out in time to put on their makeup and jump into the passenger seat of your car. Breda--that was her name, Breda Drumhill, and the very sound and syllabification of it made me melt--was different.

Finally, two weeks after the trek to Rhinebeck, she invited me to her apartment. Cocktails, she said. Dinner. A quiet evening in front of the tube.

    She lived in Croton, on the ground floor of a restored Victorian, half a mile from the Harmon station, where she caught the train each morning for Manhattan and her job as an editor of Anthropology Today. She'd held the job since graduating from Barnard six years earlier (with a double major in Rhetoric and Alien Cultures), and it suited her temperament perfectly. Field anthropologists living among the River Dyak of Borneo or the Kurds of Kurdistan would send her rough and grammatically tortured accounts of their observations and she would whip them into shape for popular consumption. Naturally, filth and exotic disease, as well as outlandish customs and revolting habits, played a leading role in her rewrites. Every other day or so she'd call me from work and in a voice that could barely contain its joy give me the details of some new and horrific disease she'd discovered.

    She met me at the door in a silk kimono that featured a plunging neckline and a pair of dragons with intertwined tails. Her hair was pinned up as if she'd just stepped out of the bath and she smelled of Noxzema and pHisoHex. She pecked my cheek, took the bottle of Vouvray I held out in offering, and led me into the front room. "Chagas' disease," she said, grinning wide to show off her perfect, outsized teeth.

    "Chagas' disease?" I echoed, not quite knowing what to do with myself. The room was as spare as a monk's cell. Two chairs, a loveseat, and a coffee table, in glass, chrome, and hard black plastic. No plants ("God knows what sort of insects might live on them--and the dirt, the dirt has got to be crawling with bacteria, not to mention spiders and worms and things") and no rug ("A breeding ground for fleas and ticks and chiggers").

    Still grinning, she steered me to the hard black plastic loveseat and sat down beside me, the Vouvray cradled in her lap. "South America," she whispered, her eyes leaping with excitement. "In the jungle. These bugs--assassin bugs, they're called--isn't that wild? These bugs bite you and then, after they've sucked on you a while, they go potty next to the wound. When you scratch, it gets into your bloodstream, and anywhere from one to twenty years later you get a disease that's like a cross between malaria and AIDS."

    "And then you die," I said.

    "And then you die."

    Her voice had turned somber. She wasn't grinning any longer. What could I say? I patted her hand and flashed a smile. "Yum," I said, mugging for her. "What's for dinner?"

    She served a cold cream-of-tofu-carrot soup and little lentil-paste sandwiches for an appetizer and a garlic souffle with biologically controlled vegetables for the entree. Then it was snifters of cognac, the big-screen TV, and a movie called The Boy in the Bubble, about a kid raised in a totally antiseptic environment because he was born without an immune system. No one could touch him. Even the slightest sneeze would have killed him. Breda sniffled through the first half-hour, then pressed my hand and sobbed openly as the boy finally crawled out of the bubble, caught about thirty-seven different diseases, and died before the commercial break. "I've seen this movie six times now," she said, fighting to control her voice, "and it gets to me every time. What a life," she said, waving her snifter at the screen, "what a perfect life. Don't you envy him?"

    I didn't envy him. I envied the jade pendant that dangled between her breasts and I told her so.

    She might have giggled or gasped or lowered her eyes, but she didn't. She gave me a long slow look, as if she were deciding something, and then she allowed herself to blush, the color suffusing her throat in a delicious mottle of pink and white. "Give me a minute," she said mysteriously, and disappeared into the bathroom.

    I was electrified. This was it. Finally. After all the avowals, the pressed hands, the little jokes and routines, after all the miles driven, meals consumed, museums paced, and movies watched, we were finally, naturally, gracefully going to come together in the ultimate act of intimacy and love.

    I felt hot. There were beads of sweat on my forehead. I didn't know whether to stand or sit. And then the lights dimmed, and there she was at the rheostat.

    She was still in her kimono, but her hair was pinned up more severely, wound in a tight coil to the crown of her head, as if she'd girded herself for battle. And she held something in her hand--a slim package, wrapped in plastic. It rustled as she crossed the room.

    "When you're in love, you make love," she said, easing down beside me on the rocklike settee, "--it's only natural." She handed me the package. "I don't want to give you the wrong impression," she said, her voice throaty and raw, "just because I'm careful and modest and because there's so much, well, filth in the world, but I have my passionate side too. I do. And I love you, I think."

    "Yes," I said, groping for her, the package all but forgotten.

    We kissed. I rubbed the back of her neck, felt something strange, an odd sag and ripple, as if her skin had suddenly turned to Saran Wrap, and then she had her hand on my chest. "Wait," she breathed, "the, the thing."

    I sat up. "Thing?"

    The light was dim but I could see the blush invade her face now. She was sweet. Oh, she was sweet, my Little Em'ly, my Victorian princess. "It's Swedish," she said.

    I looked down at the package in my lap. It was a clear, skin-like sheet of plastic, folded up in its transparent package like a heavy-duty garbage bag. I held it up to her huge, trembling eyes. A crazy idea darted in and out of my head. No, I thought.

    "It's the newest thing," she said, the words coming in a rush, "the safest ... I mean, nothing could possibly--"

    My face was hot. "No," I said.

    "It's a condom," she said, tears starting up in her eyes, "my doctor got them for me they're ... they're Swedish." Her face wrinkled up and she began to cry. "It's a condom," she sobbed, crying so hard the kimono fell open and I could see the outline of the thing against the swell of her nipples, "a full-body condom."

I was offended. I admit it. It wasn't so much her obsession with germs and contagion, but that she didn't trust me after all that time. I was clean. Quintessentially clean. I was a man of moderate habits and good health, I changed my underwear and socks daily--sometimes twice a day--and I worked in an office, with clean, crisp, unequivocal numbers, managing my late father's chain of shoe stores (and he died cleanly himself, of a myocardial infarction, at seventy-five). "But Breda," I said, reaching out to console her and brushing her soft, plasticclad breast in the process, "don't you trust me? Don't you believe in me? Don't you, don't you love me?" I took her by the shoulders, lifted her head, forced her to look me in the eye. "I'm clean," I said. "Trust me."

    She looked away. "Do it for me," she said in her smallest voice, "if you really love me."

    In the end, I did it. I looked at her, crying, crying for me, and I looked at the thin sheet of plastic clinging to her, and I did it. She helped me into the thing, poked two holes for my nostrils, zipped the plastic zipper up the back, and pulled it tight over my head. It fit like a wetsuit. And the whole thing--the stroking and the tenderness and the gentle yielding--was everything I'd hoped it would be.

    Almost.

She called me from work the next day. I was playing with sales figures and thinking of her. "Hello," I said, practically cooing into the receiver.

    "You've got to hear this." Her voice was giddy with excitement.

    "Hey," I said, cutting her off in a passionate whisper, "last night was really special."

    "Oh, yes," she said, "yes, last night. It was. And I love you, I do..." She paused to draw in her breath. "But listen to this: I just got a piece from a man and his wife living among the Tuareg of Nigeria--these are the people who follow cattle around, picking up the dung for their cooking fires?"

    I made a small noise of awareness.

    "Well, they make their huts of dung too--isn't that wild? And guess what--when times are hard, when the crops fail and the cattle can barely stand up, you know what they eat?"

    "Let me guess," I said. "Dung?"

    She let out a whoop. "Yes! Yes! Isn't it too much? They eat dung!"

    I'd been saving one for her, a disease a doctor friend had told me about. "Onchocerciasis," I said. "You know it?"

    There was a thrill in her voice. "Tell me."

    "South America and Africa both. A fly bites you and lays its eggs in your bloodstream and when the eggs hatch, the larvae--these little white worms--migrate to your eyeballs, right underneath the membrane there, so you can see them wriggling around."

    There was a silence on the other end of the line.

    "Breda?"

    "That's sick," she said. "That's really sick."

    But I thought--? I trailed off. "Sorry," I said.

    "Listen," and the edge came back into her voice, "the reason I called is because I love you, I think I love you, and I want you to meet somebody."

    "Sure," I said.

    "I want you to meet Michael. Michael Maloney."

    "Sure. Who's he?"

    She hesitated, paused just a beat, as if she knew she was going too far. "My doctor," she said.

You have to work at love. You have to bend, make subtle adjustments, sacrifices--love is nothing without sacrifice. I went to Dr. Maloney. Why not? I'd eaten tofu, bantered about leprosy and bilharziasis as if I were immune, and made love in a bag. If it made Breda happy--if it eased the nagging fears that ate at her day and night--then it was worth it.

    The doctor's office was in Scarsdale, in his home, a two-tone mock Tudor with a winding drive and oaks as old as my grandfather's Chrysler. He was a young man--late thirties, I guessed--with a red beard, shaved head, and a pair of oversized spectacles in clear plastic frames. He took me right away--the very day I called--and met me at the door himself. "Breda's told me about you," he said, leading me into the floodlit vault of his office. He looked at me appraisingly a moment, murmuring "Yes, yes" into his beard, and then, with the aid of his nurses, Miss Archibald and Miss Slivovitz, put me through a battery of tests that would have embarrassed an astronaut.

    First, there were the measurements, including digital joints, maxilla, cranium, penis, and earlobe. Next, the rectal exam, the EEG and urine sample. And then the tests. Stress tests, patch tests, reflex tests, lung-capacity tests (I blew up yellow balloons till they popped, then breathed into a machine the size of a Hammond organ), the X-rays, sperm count, and a closely printed, twenty-four-page questionnaire that included sections on dream analysis, genealogy, and logic and reasoning. He drew blood too, of course--to test vital-organ function and exposure to disease. "We're testing for antibodies to over fifty diseases," he said, eyes dodging behind the walls of his lenses. "You'd be surprised how many people have been infected without even knowing it." I couldn't tell if he was joking or not. On the way out he took my arm and told me he'd have the results in a week.

    That week was the happiest of my life. I was with Breda every night, and over the weekend we drove up to Vermont to stay at a hygiene center her cousin had told her about. We dined by candlelight--on real food--and afterward we donned the Saran Wrap suits and made joyous, sanitary love. I wanted more, of course--the touch of skin on skin--but I was fulfilled and I was happy. Go slow, I told myself. All things in time. One night, as we lay entwined in the big white fortress of her bed, I stripped back the hood of the plastic suit and asked her if she'd ever trust me enough to make love in the way of the centuries, raw and unprotected. She twisted free of her own wrapping and looked away, giving me that matchless patrician profile. "Yes," she said, her voice pitched low, "yes, of course. Once the results are in."

    "Results?"

    She turned to me, her eyes searching mine. "Don't tell me you've forgotten?"

    I had. Carried away, intense, passionate, brimming with love, I'd forgotten.

    "Silly you," she murmured, tracing the line of my lips with a slim, plastic-clad finger. "Does the name Michael Maloney ring a bell?"

And then the roof fell in.

    I called and there was no answer. I tried her at work and her secretary said she was out. I left messages. She never called back. It was as if we'd never known one another, as if I were a stranger, a door-to-door salesman, a beggar on the street.

    I took up a vigil in front of her house. For a solid week I sat in my parked car and watched the door with all the fanatic devotion of a pilgrim at a shrine. Nothing. She neither came nor went. I rang the phone off the hook, interrogated her friends, haunted the elevator, the hallway, and the reception room at her office. She'd disappeared.

    Finally, in desperation, I called her cousin in Larchmont. I'd met her once--she was a homely, droopy-sweatered, baleful-looking girl who represented everything gone wrong in the genes that had come to such glorious fruition in Breda--and barely knew what to say to her. I'd made up a speech, something about how my mother was dying in Phoenix, the business was on the rocks, I was drinking too much and dwelling on thoughts of suicide, destruction, and final judgment, and I had to talk to Breda just one more time before the end, and did she by any chance know where she was? As it turned out, I didn't need the speech. Breda answered the phone.

    "Breda, it's me," I choked. "I've been going crazy looking for you."

    Silence.

    "Breda, what's wrong? Didn't you get my messages?"

    Her voice was halting, distant. "I can't see you anymore," she said.

    "Can't see me?" I was stunned, hurt, angry. "What do you mean?"

    "All those feet," she said.

    "Feet?" It took me a minute to realize she was talking about the shoe business. "But I don't deal with anybody's feet--I work in an office. Like you. With air-conditioning and sealed windows. I haven't touched a foot since I was sixteen."

    "Athlete's foot," she said. "Psoriasis. Eczema. Jungle rot."

    "What is it? The physical?" My voice cracked with outrage. "Did I flunk the damn physical? Is that it?"

    She wouldn't answer me.

    A chill went through me. "What did he say? What did the son of a bitch say?"

    There was a distant ticking over the line, the pulse of time and space, the gentle sway of Bell Telephone's hundred million miles of wire.

    "Listen," I pleaded, "see me one more time, just once--that's all I ask. We'll talk it over. We could go on a picnic. In the park. We could spread a blanket and, and we could sit on opposite corners--"

    "Lyme disease," she said.

    "Lyme disease?"

    "Spread by tick bite. They're seething in the grass. You get Bell's palsy, meningitis, the lining of your brain swells up like dough."

    "Rockefeller Center then," I said. "By the fountain."

    Her voice was dead. "Pigeons," she said. "They're like flying rats."

    "Helmut's. We can meet at Helmut's. Please. I love you."

    "I'm sorry."

    "Breda, please listen to me. We were so close--"

    "Yes," she said, "we were close," and I thought of that first night in her apartment, the boy in the bubble and the Saran Wrap suit, thought of the whole dizzy spectacle of our romance till her voice came down like a hammer on the refrain, "but not that close."

(1987)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 27, 2002

    Wickedly Funny & Heartwrenching too

    This is a must-have for anyone who takes fiction seriously. It's funny, weird, and totally orginal. The range and span of these stories will blow your mind. It's like Flannery O'Conner meets the Coen Brothers.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 24, 2000

    wickedly funny and delightfully demented

    i have read alot of his stories in the New Yorker over the years but these were all new to me.the guy is a real howl.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 23, 2010

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