Characters in Search of a Difference
A volume of stories, bereft of continuity in plot and character, is often unified only by the writer's obsessiveness. A certain restlessness, a temporary energy takes over, a singing in the brain that is too intense to live with for the duration of a novel. That energy roams the lines of the story looking for a way out. James Joyce called that way out an epiphany, but in our time it is more like the quick release of passion than the stately illumination of the intellect.
"Descent of Man" is loaded with energetic language. On the dedication page, T. Coraghessan Boyle offers us Tarzan's "Ungowa," and with that half-comic, half-desperate signal we launch into this first collection. Tarzan is an appropriate voice of introduction: The jungle is as dominant in Mr. Boyle's imagination as the parlor is in Jane Austen's. Rot and overgrowth are among Mr. Boyle's favorite subjects, but his style is as crisp as if it has been quick-frozen.
The title story begins with the narrator's lament: "I was living with a woman who suddenly began to stink." This is not just the petty vindictiveness of the scorned lover; this man's Jane really does stink, since her new lover is Konrad, a brilliant chimpanzee who is translating into Yerkish Darwin's "Descent of Man," Chomsky's "Language and Mind" and Nietzsche's "Beyond Good and Evil."
The story is characteristic of Mr. Boyle's obsession with the origin of the species. It is this comic-imaginative quest that makes the collection seem so unified. Characters are in search of the differences between man and beast, man and woman, plunderer and hero, art and silliness.
Though the stories are sometimes merely clever, Mr. Boyle is capable of the sublime. In "A Women's Restaurant" his narrator is obsessed by a restaurant that admits only women. His imagination runs wild because he is excluded. This underground man wants to enter society, but in our time he finds that he is barred by femininity rather than by the old standbys, wealth and culture:
"There are times, at home, fish poached, pots scrubbed, my mind gone blank, when suddenly it begins to rise in my consciousness, a sunken log heaving to the surface. A women's restaurant. The injustice of it, the snobbery, the savory dark mothering mystery: what do they do in there?"
Mr. Boyle likes to imagine his characters "in extremis"; the melodramatic is where he begins. In "Heart of a Champion" he gives us Lassie and Tommy in the midst of their never-ending crises
"The boy's eyes startle and then there's a blur, a smart snout clutching his pantleg, the thunderblast of the trunk, the dust and spinning leaves. "Golly, Lassie ... I didn't even see it," says the boy sitting safe in a mound of moss. The collie looks up at him (the svelte snout, the deep gold logician's eyes), and laps at his face."
This Lassie momentarily gives herself to a coyote, blurring the distinction between man's friend and enemy, but she will see her boy through his predictable emergencies. She hasn't much choice, it's built into the genre.
In "Green Hell" Mr. Boyle has a wonderful time with an even more melodramatic circumstance - a plane crash and its survivors. They crash in the jungle, of course, bury "twelve rugby players" and try to establish their little society in the wilderness. "The pilot talked of the spirit of democracy, the social con. tract, the state of nature, the myth of the noble savage, and the mythopoeic significance of Uncle Sam."
But Mr. Boyle does not use melodrama, rot and decay exclusively as parody. In "Bloodfall" it rains blood. In a number of the stories Mr. Boyle is fascinated with describing blood and clots of gore. In this story he gives his descriptive power free rein. The brutal irony of the story is lodged in how the bored rich communards watch the blood fall and listen to their "thirty-six-inch Fisher speaker in the corner," knowing that it might be "Judgment Day." They smoke and eat and watch in this charged but calm atmosphere still another "descent of man."
The circumstances in these stories are always surprising. An astronaut comes home from the moon to a house that has rotted away; an old Norse bard laments the bad days a plunderer sometimes has to endure. In "Dada," Idi Amin comes to New York as the guest of honor at a Dada festival. He heads for Harlem, where he reserves "the fourth floor of the Hotel Theresa" and offers wifehood to his hostess, who answers Big Daddy's "Why you laugh?" with, "I was thinking of Bergson."
There is no lack of cleverness in "Descent of Man," but sometimes the cleverness is all, or it is only a partial cleverness, as in "The Big Garage" or "The Champ." But the failures are the honest failures of an energetic writer who is willing to try .anything. That "Ungowa" on the dedication page is a joyful announcement: An adventurous new bird, T. Coraghessan Boyle, has come to roost in the literary jungle.