Shock value

T.C. Boyle's latest stories confound


by T.C. Boyle (Viking, $25.95) Hugo Stage, 11:45 a.m.-12:45 p.m. Sun., Oct. 21

WELCOME TO the world of After the Plague, an angry, torn-from-the-headlines world of car wrecks, beatdowns, robberies, sabotage, murder, infanticide, et al., in which people go off the deep end like lemmings while we bear helpless witness. In the best stories here, T.C. Boyle approaches the elegant aggression of the work of Thom Jones or Roald Dahl, creating characters who may be bitter or crazy but retain a kernel of humanity in the form of a usually inappropriate, though still funny, sense of humor. Take Rick, a drug addict released from rehab to work in his brother's abortion clinic. Sure, he becomes obsessed with a patient, starts using again, and gets more than violent, but he's sharp and he's got a knack for description; his brother kindly picks him up from the airport, and he says, "'You look like shit, Philip. You look like Dad just before he died—or maybe after he died.'"

Then there's the resentful, estranged college-age son of a famous writer; his lovely, witty, and brief descriptions of his girlfriend's enormous mane of dyed-pink dreadlocks could carry the story all by themselves. (In a laudable act of self-deprecation on Boyle's part, the father/author is described as "A skinny man in his late forties with kinky hair and a goatee who dressed like he was twenty-five and had a dead black morbid outlook on life. . . . his hair standing straight up on his head like a used toilet brush"; just check out the jacket photo.)

BOYLE'S STORIES have good hooks, bringing out the prurient in us, making us the voyeur. "Peep Hall" takes this implication and makes it explicit as an overeducated waiter becomes obsessed (a motif here) with a lovely young neighbor whose life is streamed live on the Web 24-7; it's as hard to tear yourself away from the story as it is for the waiter to get offline. In "Going Down," we are engrossed in reading about a character too engrossed in what he's reading to heed the fact that his wife is missing in a snowstorm. Both pieces are very meta and certainly hold your interest, but as with a lot of these tales, the endings feel throwaway, and the stories are cheaper for it.

Boyle often lapses into overwriting—"It was warm, midsummer, the air charged with the scent of rosemary and lavender and the desiccated menthol of the eucalyptus trees. I felt the sun on my face. I slowly shook my head." He also favors a plot-driven style featuring melodramatic final twists or painfully pointed last lines that rival those of de Maupassant for cheesiness but dwell in the realm of modern true horror comics; thus a story ends with a fed up man holding a gun on another—"But this time there would be no footrace, because Edison had already caught up."

Yet what is most disturbing here is not the newborns being hurled into dumpsters but the flashes of bald contempt Boyle evinces for his own characters. The teenage parents of said newborn in "The Love of My Life," for instance, are depicted as shallow upper-middle-class kids lost in their own juvenile love (which is clearly less for each other than themselves), and for this they are punished by a vengeful authorial hand. Yes, it is interesting, if terrible, to contemplate who would do such a thing, how it would come about, but the sketch of motivations here is so thin and scornful ("She was spoiled, he could see that now, spoiled by her parents and their standard of living and the socioeconomic expectations of her class—of his class—and the promise of life as you like it, an unscrolling vista of pleasure and acquisition") that the ugliness, weirdly, has no substance.

The world of After the Plague is a fascinating if exhausting place, both for its flashes of sick brilliance and its jolting failures.

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