T.C. Boyle

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"Tooth and Claw: Other Stories"

(Reviewed by Guy Savage APR 20, 2008)

My childhood wasn’t exactly ideal, and I mention it here not as an excuse, but as a point of reference. For the record, both my parents drank heavily, and in the early days, before my father gave up and withered away somewhere deep in the upright shell of himself, there was shouting, there were accusations, tears, violence.

If I had to pick just one word to describe the writing of T.C. Boyle, it would be "multifaceted." And this word comes to mind when reading the fourteen varied and highly original stories in the collection Tooth and Claw. All of Boyle’s characters are desperately close to slipping away from the predictability of mundane lives and entering a world less familiar and much more dangerous. One slight twist of fate pulls Boyle’s characters away from that precipice or sends them tumbling over into oblivion. Some of the stories focus on losers bent on self-destructive binges (“When I Woke Up This Morning”, “Everything I Had Was Gone,” “Here Comes”), while some of the stories focus on the random nature of fate ("Chicxulub"). But whether the story is set on a Shetland island or in 18th Century New York, a consistent quality permeates these pages.

My three favorite stories in the collection are “Dogology” “Tooth and Claw” and “Jubilation.” It wasn’t particularly easy to pick three favorites, but after mulling it over, these three stuck out for their sheer perverse qualities.

In “Dogology” Denning, a young married man living in the doldrums of suburbia is shaken to his foundations when he discovers that his new neighbor, intent on developing her sense of smell, has joined a pack of wild dogs that roam the neighborhood. While his wife Cara demands that he "do something" about the neighbor’s behavior, Denning is at first outraged and then intrigued.

“It wasn’t that he had anything against dogs per se—it was their destructiveness he objected to, their arrogance, as if they owned the whole world and it was their privilege to do as they liked with it.”

Hen-pecked and surrounded by the dullness of mediocrity, he simultaneously recognizes that the strange young woman’s life with the dogs is socially unacceptable behavior to humans. While she is in the process of abandoning civilization, he is restricted and contained by society’s rules of behavior. Surrounded by friends “as dull as woodchips” he discovers that dogs—while often the victims of human kind (“dogs are just slaves anyway”) also enjoy a freedom that humans have long since left behind.

In “Tooth and Claw” James, a lonely young man reluctantly wins a Serval cat on a roll of the dice. He doesn’t know what on earth to do with the caged cat, but since it earns him a great deal of attention from Daria, an attractive young waitress in the bar he haunts, he goes along for the ride, and takes the cat home. Trying to impress Daria and keep her in his life, he agrees to let the Serval lose in his bedroom. From this point on, with the "wild" literally invading his home, James’s life rapidly spins out of control.

The best story in the collection is “Jubilation.” It’s the story of Jackson Peters Reilly, a fairly affluent man who, following a divorce, decides to buy a home in a popular Florida theme park.  His acquaintances find his decision absurd, but he calls them “cynics.” The "dream" community is set “in the middle of the vacation wonderland itself, with Contash World on one side and Game Park U.S.A on the other.” The houses are sold by lottery, and those who are not selected for the exclusive community use their wealth to buy a place from a lottery winner. Jackson buys his dream home and moves in, striking up an acquaintance with a single mother named Vicki. In spite of the fact that Jackson touts the egalitarian qualities of the community, “if you wanted in—no matter who you were or who you knew—you had to stand in line like everyone else”—the “prêt-a-porter” community is far from egalitarian. In fact the houses establish an ingrained hierarchy of ownership—starting with the “mini-luxury” apartments up to the “Casual Contempos” a:

“detached home in the North Village section of town, on the artificial lake, a cool four hundred thousand dollars for a ninety-by-thirty lot and a wraparound porch that leered promiscuously at the wraparound porches of my neighbors, ten feet away on either side.”

“Jubilation” is an amazing story; it captures the protagonist’s desire to live in a Disney-like setting and the illusion of living in a "perfect" community:

“I wasn’t retiring to Florida to play golf till I dropped dead of boredom, but just looking for what was missing in my life, for the values I’d grown up with in the suburbs, where there were no fences, no walls, no gated communities and private security guards, where everyone knew everyone else and democracy wasn’t just a tattered banner the politicians unfurled for their convenience every four years.”

Ironically, Jubilation passes in Jackson’s mind as a "real" community, but it’s as fake as plastic. He never realizes it—even though the evidence is put right in front of him repeatedly. He fails to realize that in order to recreate the "freedom" of his childhood, he has to live in a manufactured community that is regulated by the strictest rules and regulations—even down to a list of permitted colors to be used for curtains. “Jubilation” contains more than a streak of dark humor. Jackson, for example, adores his house and the manufactured image he thinks it projects of his success, but then some hostile low-lifes who don’t play by the rules move in across the street….

Tooth and Claw is a marvelous collection of short stories. There’s not a loser in the bunch. Each story is vastly different from the one before, and yet all fourteen capture the fragility of "civilization" and the constant, prevalent presence of the Wild. Excellent!

  • Amazon readers rating: from 13 reviews
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"Drop City"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte JUL 08, 2003)

Flower power may be a thing of the past but the '60's counterculture occupies center stage in T.C. Boyle's latest novel. Drop City is the name of a commune in Sonoma, California. Set in 1970, the group consists of seventy or so hippies headed by 40-something Norm Sender and his "chick," Premstar.

Read excerptOne of the primary protagonists in Drop City is Star, a young girl from New York state who has driven all the way out to California with her high-school friend, Ronnie -- who calls himself Pan. Star gets increasingly disillusioned with Pan and latches on to the first somewhat sensible guy she meets--Marco.

A few chapters later, the novel shifts focus to rural Boynton, Alaska, where a different kind of "living off the land" is in practice. Here, a little implausibly, Pamela is checking out a few bachelors because she has decided to go back to the land; "she was going to live in the bush, and she was going to be one hundred percent self-sufficient." She is willing to put herself in "the hands of some grizzled, twisted, sex-starved fur trapper with suet-clogged arteries and guns decorating his walls." After a brief romance, she hooks up with Sess Harder, a self-made man who seems to be just Pamela's type.

Back at Drop City, the paradise where there were "big pots full of mush, women with their tits hanging, health and simplicity and the good rural life," might seem glamorous, but reality is a lot harsher. Norm runs Drop City according to the principle LATWIDNO -- Land Access to Which is Denied Nobody. This principle predictably invites many freeloaders and troublemakers. What's worse, the California government officials want to close the commune down due to health hazards: "nobody wanted a free-form community in their midst, because free-form meant anarchy, it meant a cordillera of trash a mile high and human shit in the woods."

At such time, Norm Sender decides to move his commune to yes, Boynton, Alaska. His uncle, Roy Sender, has left him a cabin up there and the rest, they can build, right? "We're going to take down some trees, because that's the way you do it," Norm explains to Drop City residents, "lumber is free up there, can you dig that, free -- and we're going to build four more cabins and a meeting house and we're going to build right on down to the river because the salmon are running up that river even as we speak and they're running in the millions…We're going to eat the land because it's one big smorgasbord."

Inevitably, as Drop City settles into Alaska, we get to watch the incredulous natives shift around and try to absorb them. "The world was changing," Sess Harder admits to himself, "men had hair like women, women wore pants like men and let their tits hang loose, and who was going to argue with that?"

Boyle's narrative paints the hippie culture and native Alaskan life in vivid detail. At times though, the story does tend to drag and wander around in a haze. The contrasts between the denizens of Drop City and Boynton may be glaringly evident at first (Star has a tough time explaining what bell bottoms and LSD has with getting back to nature) but as the citizens gradually find their place, the distinction becomes more of a blur. Boyle treats these subtle character shifts very well.

Drop City is a slightly sympathetic look at hippie culture; Norm Sender eggs his denizens on: "It's going to be an adventure," he promises, "and there's nobody -- I mean nobody -- to stop us." As the cruelly harsh Alaskan winter gradually envelops Drop City, one hopes, for their sakes, that he is right. Boyle's latest is an honest look at what it takes to survive in the human jungle. He shows that ultimately what sustains or unravels us usually comes from within. Jealousies, anger, fear--these are emotions that dog us down to the most remote places on earth and ultimately tear our carefully constructed worlds apart. You can run, but you can't hide.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 119 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Drop City at MostlyFiction.com



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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

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About the Author:

T.C. BoyleT. Coraghessan Boyle was born and grew up in Peekshill, New York in the Hudson Valley. He received a Ph.D. degree in 19th Century British Literature from the University of Iowa in 1977, his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1974, and his B.A. in English and History from SUNY Potsdam in 1968. He has been a member of the English Department at the University of Southern California since 1978.

His books are available in a number of foreign languages, including German, French, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, Hebrew, Korean, Japanese, Danish, Swedish and Lithuanian. His stories have appeared in most of the major American magazines, including The New Yorker, Harper's, Esquire, The Atlantic Monthly, Playboy, The Paris Review, GQ, Antaeus and Granta, and he has been the recipient of a number of literary awards.

He currently lives near Santa Barbara, California with his wife and three children.

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