Boyling Point
T.C. Boyle is so good, it's laughable

Dan Bennett
Pages 9/10/01

Sitting atop his porch on a presumably gorgeous Santa Barbara day, T Coraghessan (hard g, accent on the second syllable) Boyle puts his caller at ease, "I normally have a litany of complaints," says the prolific author and eager talker who goes by Tom. "I'm feeling pretty good today."

Truth is, few mind feeling the heat of Boyle's complaints, because he has long been known as one of the friendlier, most engaging authors on the interview circuit, a man who doesn't mind getting to the core of his muse, his mood, his whatever, enamored with the process of a free-wheeling conversation that bounces where it will.

While some authors protect their inner demons with silent ferocity, Boyle lets it fly, employing much of the wit and backdoor satire that has delighted readers since they first began reading his eye-popping stories of wry gloom and suspicious optimism more than 20 years ago. Boyle is friskier than usual this day, because he has recently returned from a grueling interview tour in Europe, where the subject was mostly A Friend of the Earth, his novel of last year. Since today he will be doing one of his first interviews for the new short story collection After the Plague and Other Stories (Viking), Boyle senses a new day dawning in his endless universe of self-explanation.

"These stories were actually written before and after A Friend of the Earth," Boyle says. "I'm constantly thinking about the things that happen to me day to day in life, and I'm always scribbling them down. I'll write a few stories, then my short-story mode will peter out, and I'll write a novel, then come back to the short stories. I'm fortunate I started out as a short-story writer, because short stories always come back to me naturally. I don't have to worry about long periods of being unable to write."

And while the subject matter of the stories in After the Plague are not necessarily autobiographical-heaven bless the scribe who experiences more than one of the 16 scenarios offered-many are based on Boyle's observations or items he has read.

The opener, "Termination Dust," begins as a possible old-fashioned romance, the story of Los Angeles women imported to the Alaskan outback for a day of charity dating with rugged loggers and such, then takes a surprisingly devious turn, the reader jolted from preconceptions. "Killing Babies" offers a fresh perspective on the violence that often surrounds abortion issues, and the subject is touched on again elsewhere in the collection. "The Love of My Life" begins as an idyllic story of the fresh spring of first love, before clouds darken yet again. "My Widow" supposes what life will be like for the author's widow when he is gone. The title story, ending the collection, imagines life for one curious fellow in the weeks after a ravaging illness has ended almost all human life on earth. The guy spends a lot of time dining with his date in now-empty restaurants and fancying up estates as temporary homes, especially when the previous occupants had the good grace to die in the backyard instead of the living room. The man's most annoying problem, besides finding clean water, is trying to find a mate for one of the two women still living on earth, the one of the two he is not interested in. It's not easy to play matchmaker when everybody is dead.

One can almost imagine the blurbs: "The funniest post-apocalyptic story of the year!" "That's part of my method, trying to invert expectations," Boyle says. "I'm so tired of these post-apocalyptic stories where Mad Max-type characters are fighting over gasoline in the dirt. I also enjoyed the idea of an Adam and Eve thing, where the only woman you thought was alive was somebody you couldn't stand. I have fun with gloom, God knows."

After the Plague is the fifth collection of short stories from Boyle. He also has a collection of stories from previous books that was published in 1998.

"I'm especially pleased with this new collection," Boyle admits. "I was able to make use of my latest toy, which is characterization, really digging in on character. Whether these arc an improvement on past efforts, that's up to the reader to decide. I find them to be a little fuller and richer, maybe not as wild as some of the earlier stories."

Wild has been the operative adjective for reviewers describing Boyle, whose 14 books have made him the so-called punk laureate of American lit, though at 52, his punk credentials may be dwindling, even if his grasp of the outlandish has not. Boyle is best known as the author of World's End, East Is East, The Road to Wellville, The Tortilla Curtain, and A Friend of the Earth. He owns a doctorate in 19th-century British literature from the University of Iowa and is the recipient of several prestigious awards, including the O. Henry Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. He has been a professor of literature at the University of Southern California since 1978. Boyle's public presentations of his work are notoriously extroverted, and he once appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman in a bright yellow suit. Boyle isn't shy, sometimes earning him criticism from those who believe writers must remain solemn.

"I enjoy demystifying the relationship between the reader and the writer," Boyle says. "It's not a holy religion. I want people who aren't reading books to hear me and think, `Hey, maybe literature ain't so bad.' I'm much reviled in some quarters for this position and am believed a turncoat. They think I should be wearing my doctoral robe and speaking in a drone. This is not to say I pander to an audience. I just do what I please. I could stay at home like Pynchon or DeLillo, writers whom I respect very much, but I would rather get out and shake my stuff."

As he shakes, Boyle attempts to explain where he's coming from in his books, work that has conjured new challenges for critics seeking to at last define the true nature of satire and irony.

"If I can get the reader to laugh, also be moved, then I'm going where I want to go," Boyle says. "One of my great heroes is Evelyn Waugh, who could make you breathless with the wicked joy of his writing. Flannery O'Connor has the same appeal. Another of my heroes is John Coltrane and his sort of improvisation. I still don't know why I attempt any particular story; I just work in a very instinctual way."

As for how he captures magic with words, when he does, Boyle again says he leaves that up to the reader.
"Making you feel and wonder, that's the best I can do," he says. "If I were God, I would have the answers to exactly how that's done, but I'm an artist, so I certainly don't."