I started reading T.C. Boyle’s second huge anthology of short stories a couple of weeks ago, and I can’t stop. It’s ridiculous: I’m carrying around this 915-page, 5-pound volume with me everywhere in case I have a spare minute to read between errands.
I started to appreciate short stories when I was tutoring high school English and read many great classics with my students. And, like countless readers, I’ve loved the stories of outstanding Canadian short story writer Alice Munro for decades.
However, I always found that short stories are best read in small doses. A good short story is a jewel of condensation that can pack a life, or many lives, into ten or twenty pages.
This T.C. Boyle guy is different. I was hooked after the first story—absolutely driven to keep reading more. I’m steadily plowing through the book, staying up late at night to read, over 500 pages finished.
My clearest thought after reading a couple of stories was, “This guy is a writer. I might as well give up right now. I can never write like this.”
Undoubtedly true, but I’ve tempered my negative thoughts a little since that first reaction.
Boyle’s stories are completely unlike the more domestic, recognizably Canadian stories of some of my favourite writers (Carol Shields and Margaret Laurence among them, in addition to Munro). Every story contains at least one disaster: horrendous falls, mudslides, car crashes, apocalyptic epidemics, baby-killings, severed relationships, scalpings, and more. Yet I promise—this is not just vacuous violence! Somehow, Boyle makes disasters and improbable runs of bad luck seem believable, part of the natural order of human experience.
I briefly thought about returning the book to the library after reading 400 pages or so. I was getting a bit depressed because a high percentage of Boyle’s protagonists are alcoholics and drug-users. His stories are not inspirational ones where the addict recovers and starts a new life. Instead, many of the stories end on a sad or hopeless note because of the destruction wreaked by the protagonist’s uncontrolled behaviour. Some readers will not be able to stomach this negativity; others, like me, will remain hooked because of the virtuosity of Boyle’s writing, the constant surprises, the hope that something good will happen.
And in some of the stories, there is a shockingly unexpected good turn. Sometimes the loser turns into a hero. Two of my favourite stories thus far, “Chicxulub” and “La Conchita,” spring “feel-good” endings on the reader.
Above all, Boyle is a superb entertainer. He’s endlessly inventive. He can make the most awful situations and characters funny. He beguiles you to keep reading, because you can’t predict where a story will go, and you know the next story will be completely different (except that it might star another alcoholic). You might wonder, as I have, “Where does all this darkness come from? Why is T.C. Boyle so obsessed by these loser characters?” But the man is a writing genius. I dare you to read just one story.
Boyle’s Preface to this book is inspirational, a must-read for any aspiring writer, and “worth the price of admission” in itself. Here are some quotes from it:
Boyle explains what he couldn’t have dreamed of when he first started writing: “…to understand that there are no limits and everything that exists or existed or might exist in some other time or reality is fair game for exploration.”
And the way I find his stories irresistible–well, Boyle plans that. “After all, a story is a seduction of the reader, and such a seduction can so immerse him or her that everything becomes plausible.”
More about T.C. Boyle
He’s not only a writing genius, he’s incredibly prolific! He has written fourteen novels, many of them award winners and/or bestsellers. He has also written nine short story collections.
You can find out more about his work at www.tcboyle.com