Witty, Chilling Tales of a Mad Society
Ron Hansen
San Francisco Chronicle 5/27/79

Here are black comedies born from junk culture, skewed looks at science, and remakes of history and movies; seventeen wicked and gaudy fictions for a very sly first book.

"The Champ" replays a 14 round eating match between heavyweights Angelo D. and Kid Gullet before an SRO crowd at the Garden. "Angelo struck back with potato gnocchi in Round Four; the Kid countered with Kentucky burgoo. They traded blows through the next several rounds, the Champ scoring with Nesselrode pie, fettuccine Alfredo and poi, the Kid lashing back with jambalaya, shrimp Creole and herring in horseradish sauce."

"Green Hell" sends up the airplane crashed in the jungle dramas. "We look around: trees that go up 300 feet, lianas, leaves the size of shower curtains, weeds thick as a knit sweater. Step back ten feet and the plane disappears. The pilot breaks for news: "We've come down in the heart of the Amazon basin, hundreds perhaps thousands of miles from the nearest toilet.

"The radio, of course, is dead."

"The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" is recast with greedy beer can collectors who savage each other in the Santa Gallina ruins, seeking "the fabled Quetzalcoatl Lite, brew of the ancient Aztecs."

And this from "Heart of a Champion": "In the woods Timmy steps on a rattler and the dog bites its head off. 'Gosh,' he says. 'Good girl, Lassie.' Then he stumbled and slips over an embankment, rolls down the brushy incline and over a sudden precipice, whirling out into the breathtaking blue space like a sky diver. He thumps down on a narrow ledge 20 feet below ... But Lassie yarps reassuringly from above, springs back to the barn for a winch and cable, hoists the boy to safety."

The stories are sardonic and scholastic, riddled with so many strange words and cribbed historical references that they seem a brand of professional winking. So Uganda's Idi Amin is invited to the Second International Dada Fair as the piece de resistance. Blood rains down for two days ruining everything and at last lets up, only to pelt down again as excrement.

More affecting are "The Extinction Tales" in which Boyle fantasizes the deaths of the last Stephen Island wren, the last passenger pigeon, the last Tasmanian, and concludes with a night visit to a father's grave three years after the funeral.

What's missing in a lot of these satires is that human connection. The standard main character is an intelligent nebbish lost in a mad society that is dissolving into something brutal, crude, and' primitive, a corruption of the thesis in Darwin's "Descent of Man." Thus the title story, in which a man is "living with a woman who suddenly began to stink" and finds that she's the lover of a Yerkes chimpanzee.

These are stunning pieces gorgeously written, outrageously funny, and they come from an educated and witty man who can entertain as well as excoriate, but they're a little heartless and chilling, cold as a switchblade at your cheek.