January 2010

Exploring the elemental strangeness of our world

By T.C. Boyle
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Perhaps nothing is more characteristic of T.C. Boyle's productive career than its unpredictability, something that’s manifest in Wild Child, his ninth collection of short stories. Choosing as his epigraph Thoreau’s statement, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world,” in these 13 stories and one novella Boyle probes the shadow zone between the apparent order of daily life and the darkness that often lies just over the horizon.

Examples of Boyle’s fascination with this borderland abound. In “La Conchita,” a courier transporting a liver to Santa Barbara for transplant finds himself thrust back into a state of nature as he must choose whether to abandon his task to help rescue a family trapped in a mudslide. Another apocalyptic California threat—fire—broods over “Ash Monday.” There’s an escaped tiger outside Los Angeles and feral cats invading a snowy Wisconsin trailer park in “Question 62,” and in Stephen King-like fashion, “Thirteen Hundred Rats” reveals a man who turns to rodents to fill the void left by his wife’s death.

Though most of the stories are set in Boyle’s home state of California, he leaves that territory for two of his more powerful tales. “Sin Dolor” is the tragic story of a Mexican boy incapable of feeling pain and the doctor who’s moved by his plight, while “Unlucky Mother” tells of the kidnapping of the mother of a Venezuelan baseball star and the lesson it teaches him about the dreadful price of fame.

The subject of truth and lies forms the backdrop of two more of Boyle’s stories. In “Balto,” a father struggles to persuade his underage daughter to cover up his decision to let her drive rather than risk a conviction for driving under the influence. Another tale is entitled simply “The Lie.” In it, a disgruntled employee invents a horrific fiction to explain his chronic absenteeism.

Boyle caps the collection with the title novella, a reimagining of the story of “Victor,” the enfant sauvage whose appearance captivated French society at the turn of the nineteenth century. With surpassing compassion, Boyle recounts the efforts of a sympathetic Paris doctor to civilize the mysterious youngster, while in the process learning bitter truths about the gulf between civilization and nature.

Demonstrating a skill many writing at greater length would envy, in each of the stories in this masterful collection Boyle creates a world filled with vivid characters and captivating plots, rich in nuance and complexity.

Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

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