TC Boyle’s Stories II is a slightly different proposition from his Collected Stories, which were published in 1998 and brought together three of his earlier collections, Descent of Man, Greasy Lake and If the River was Whiskey. Some of the differences are elucidated by Boyle himself in a nicely judged preface:
‘This time around I’ve chosen a more straightforward arrangement – that is roughly chronological – because I suppose I’ve become ever so slightly less whimsical as I move on down the long dark road that inescapably ends in an even darker place.’
By which Boyle means to say that, whilst there are still ‘satires, tall tales and excursions into the absurd’ (although ‘perhaps as a lower percentage of the whole’), there are also ‘non-whimsical stories’, ‘historical meditations, memory pieces and comedic stories in various valences, from laugh aloud to the sort of strained laughter that catches in your throat’. There are other differences, both personal and commercial. I’ve been reading Boyle for about 15 years now, and so came to the original Collected Stories when I was making my way through his back catalogue at the time – which meant ingesting roughly 50 stories in one go (which at the time felt a bit like consuming too much rich food – I was worried I would come down with literary gout). When Stories II landed, with a thud (it clocks in at more than 900 pages) on my doormat, I did take down the Original Collected stories and thought, hmmm, maybe it’s time for a re-read. Stories II compiles After the Plague, Tooth & Claw and Wild Child – three collections we read as they were released (the first of which just prior to our meeting Boyle himself at Hay on Wye – he signed my copy of After the Plague ‘Con Amistad’) – together with a new collection, A Death in Kitchawank, 14 previously uncollected stories. The presence of A Death in Kitchawank make this an essential purchase for Boyle fans. There’s a further difference, too – I’ve changed my own reading habits quite a lot over the last 15 years too so, for example, I now ‘take’ The New Yorker, and so have read almost a quarter of the new collection as the stories were issued (given that the other magazine that most regularly offers a home to new stories by TC Boyle is Playboy I might have to try and persuade my wife to let me take a subscription – for purely literary reasons, of course).
There is a question over who the first readers of Stories II will be (and the question impacts upon the review somewhat). Are we pitching ourselves at Boyle fans who will have read the three earlier collections and who will be wanting to know how A Death in Kitchawank stands up (given that there doesn’t appear to be a plan to release it as a separate book in its own right)? Or are we talking to readers who possibly haven’t dabbled with Boyle before but consider themselves short story fans? Quite possibly we could do both. To the latter audience, we can say that Boyle is one of the great champions of the form, somebody up there with Lorrie Moore and William Trevor and David Means and Russell Banks (whose most recent collection, A Permanent Member of the Family we still heartily recommend) – Boyle is also a strong and obvious descendant of Flannery O’Connor, still the greatest short story writer in this reviewer’s view, citing her influence in the Preface:
‘If I had to choose a defining moment it was when I first read O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find for an English class: here was the sort of story that subverted expectations, that began in one mode – situation comedy, familiar from TV – and ended wickedly and deliciously in another. And I’d thought there were rules.’
If you have yet to dabble with his stories, this is a great place to start, his stories being the ideal gateway to his novels, given that they are a sort of melting pot of his concerns (environmental, egalitarian, comedic, like a bath filled to the brim with humanity that is then hauled aboard a small trawler and sent out to sea in a storm, all humanity slopping this way and that). It is impossible (you’ll see why if you crack the cover and get stuck in) to single out favourites in a book this size. I genuinely cannot imagine how a fan of short stories could read Boyle and come away not having had the best time.
And so to A Death in Kitchawank. Funnily enough, there is a story in here, ‘The Night of the Satellite’ that recalls the title story of O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find.’The Night of the Satellite’ concerns a couple caught up in a relationship ending row, the cause of which is another couple arguing who they (eventually) pass on the road to their friends’ place. Paul, the narrator, is, like a great many of Boyle’s protagonists, both sympathetic and unsympathetic, clever and stupid, rash and wise, as we all can be – and it is a sign, for me, of Boyle’s singular talents that he can take a reader on a journey over the course of a dozen or so pages without ever once making the reader feel unduly manipulated.
The collection takes a little more time to pack a meaty punch (Boyle, as we have said, has evolved quite considerably as a writer so he seems less interested, these days, in that journey to wrongfoot he reader – to take them from sitcom land to somewhere delicious and wicked), and so the first four or five stories are perhaps more literary (by which I mean slower, more ruminative) than the opening five stories of any previous collection. ‘My Pain is Worse Than Your Pain’ concerns an ageing lothario, a peeping tom whose ardour inevitably results in slapstick, hurting no-one more than himself; ‘The Silence’ tells the tale of an ageing hippy, a New Age sort, on a retreat with his latest squeeze, having embraced a vow of silence amongst a group that eventually leads to a tragedy that is at once comic and sad (that laughter that catches in the back of your throat); the title story (about which we wonder what conversations were had in Bloomsbury’s Marketing department that possibly lead to its inclusion within Stories II rather then released in its own right) a poetic, complex story told by duelling narrators (or should than be ‘told with an interrupting narrator’) about a retirement community and a couple and their relationship with their neighbours over a period of decades, the title of which hangs over proceedings until the eventual, unexpected climax; ‘What Separates Us From the Animals’ also takes place within a small community but concerns the arrival of a new vet whose hygiene gradually starts to upset the locals; and ‘Good Home’ which focuses on a young man who makes his money breeding dogs to fight (another opportunity for Boyle to have us walk in the shoes of someone who on the surface would be immediately unsympathetic to anyone who likes animals).
The first genuine Boyle classic of the new collection is ‘In the Zone’ which is set within the Zone of Alienation established around Chernobyl after the catastrophic nuclear accident in 1986. Boyle follows an elderly couple as they return to the place they each once called home:
‘That first day was among the happiest of her life. She felt like a songbird caged all these years and suddenly set free, felt giddy, a girl all over again. And the house, the house was a miracle, everything as she’d left it, the smells awakening a thousand recollections, of [her late husband] Oleski, of the good times when the light seemed as if it would never fade, the snowbound winters when they two of them played chess and checkers in front of the stove while the cat purred in her lap and the samovar steamed and the silence was so absolute you could wrap yourself in it.’
Of course there are threats to the homestead (wild animals emerging from the preponderance of woodland that has grown without man to cut it back, a visit from her son that highlights the poison everywhere about her) but the story does not go in the direction you suspect it will (one of the real pleasures of Boyle at his best). ‘In the Zone’ is 16 pages of distracting, thoughtful wonderfulness. For a short time I wasn’t where I was, I was where Boyle took me.
There are a good half a dozen stories after ‘In the Zone’ every bit as good as ‘In the Zone’ – ‘Sic Transit’ which concerns the death of a reclusive rock star, ‘Slate Mountain’ (a story obviously influenced by the long walks Boyle takes himself), ‘The Marlbane Manchester Musser Award’. Each pleasures more than worth the price of admission.
So. To end. An opportunity for non-Boyle fans to jump in and get up to speed with one of the titans of short story writing working today. An opportunity for Boyle fans to relish something new and also have a bit of a ‘small the coffee’ moment as we retread some of the ground he has ploughed this last decade. We know that there is a new novel on the way, The Harder They Come, but Stories II – and particularly A Death in Kitchwank – will more than make do until then.
Any Cop?: A mammoth cornucopia of Boyle stories, enough to keep fans and non fans alike happy for a good few weeks.