Sunday, February 1, 2009

Greasy Lake & Other Stories by T. Coraghessan Boyle

These are stories from relatively early in Boyle's career—appearing in only his second published collection of short stories with only two novels under his belt. There are some gems here, but also some experiments that seem to go awry.

Greasy Lake. The title story is one in which Boyle's wit and penchant for non-sequitarous but ringingly true similes is turned on full throttle. It's entertaining, but also a little overpowering. The story itself is engaging, and the picture it paints of harsh reality confronting those whose young lives have been little more than feckless affectation is riveting.

Caviar. This is almost the best story in the book. Boyle slows down the pace of hyberbole he set in the opening story, but not quite enough for the first person narrator, who tells us in the opening sentence that he didn't go to college. Didn't go to college, but still peppers his tale with flair like this:

Somewhere around July or August, the sweet blueclaw crabs crawling up the riverbed like an army on maneuvers and the humid heat lying over the valley like a cupped hand...

and words such as "impresario," "clerestory," and "anadromous." These slips are few and far between, but each time they jarred me out of the flow of Boyle's narrative and reminded me that I was reading of Boyle story, and not listening to a narrator tell a personal and painful tale.

The story itself is about a man who falls for the surrogate mother he and his infertile wife hire to bear them a child, and it's a tight composition about the emotional and physicial bonds in which we wrap up that little thing called love. As the narrator at one point tellingly posits:

I'd like to say I was torn, but I wasn't. I didn't want to hurt Marie—she was my wife, my best friend, I loved and respected her—and yet there was Wendy, with her breathy voice and gray eyes, bearing my child. The thought of it, of my son floating around in his own little sea just behind the sweet bulge of her belly...well, it inflamed me, got me mad with lust and passion and spiritual love too. Wasn't Wendy as much my wife as Marie? Wasn't marriage, at bottom, simply a tool for procreating the species? Hadn't Sarah told Abraham to go in unto Hagar?

Ike and Nina. I've been reading and enjoying Boyle for a number of years now. And I keep reading reviews on his book jackets about how funny his prose is. Well, I never thought so. Entertaining, yes. Funny, not exactly. Well, it's stories like Ike and Nina that have helped me realize where that reputation came from. Ike is President Eisenhower and Nina is the wife of Nikita Khrushchev, and the story is about the illicit love affair they shared at the height of the Cold War.

Yes: the eagle and the bear, defrosting the Cold War with the heat of their passion, Dwight D. Eisenhower—Ike—virile, dashing, athletic, in the arms of Madame Nina Khrushcheva, the svelte and seductive schoolmistress from the Ukraine. Behind closed doors, in emabssy restrooms and hotel corridors, they gave themselves over to the urgency of their illicit love, while the peace and stability of the civilized world hung in the balance.

It's the best kind of funny—a crazy idea handled seriously, with the impossibility of it all poking through only briefly and unwelcome when it does.

Rupert Beersley and the Beggar Master of Sivani-Hoota. And this one, I think, is the worst kind of funny. It's silly and doesn't take itself seriously and, as a result, neither did I.

On for the Long Haul. I enjoyed this one a great deal because it seemed that Boyle put a lot of the things he had been working on in the other stories to good use in it. His whimsical similes are restrained like they are in Caviar, but he's telling the story as an omniscient third-person narrator, so his occasional gratuitous foray can be enjoyed without it getting in the way of the story. And, unlike some of the other stories in the book, this one has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Also, like in Greasy Lake, the main character in this one seems committed to a certain course of action, until he meets someone even more committed than he is, and then the main character suddenly finds his commitment dissolving away. Enjoyable throughout.

The Hector Quesadilla Story. The book jacket says Boyle wrote this one "of an aging Latin ballplayer, long past his best stuff, who on his birthday is put into an endless rotation in a game that goes on forever." And it is that, but it is also a parable about the ups and downs of life—the unending way life has of making us the hero in some situations and the goat in others.

Hector has no worries, the moment eternal, replayed through games uncountable, with pitchers who were over the hill when he was a rookie with San Buitre, with pups like Brannerman, with big-leaguers and Hall of Famers. Here it comes, Hector, 92 MPH, the big gringo trying to throw it by you, the matchless wrists, the flawless swing, one terrific moment of suspended animation—and all of a sudden you're starring in your own movie.

How does it go? The ball cutting through the night sky like a comet, arching high over the center fielder's hapless scrambling form to slam off the wall while your legs churn up the base paths, you round first in a gallop, taking second, and heading for third...but wait, you spill hot coffee on your hand and you can't feel it, the demons apply the live wire to your tailbone, the legs give out and they cut you down at third while the stadium erupts in howls of execration and abuse and the ninitos break down, faces flooded with tears of humiliation, Hector Jr. turning his back in disgust and Asuncion raging like a harpie, Abuelo! Abuelo! Abuelo!

Stunned, shrunken, humiliated, you stagger back to the dugout in a maelstorm of abuse, paper cups, flying spittle, your life a waste, the game a cheat, and then, crowning irony, that bum Tool, worthless all the way back to his washerwoman grandmother and the drunken muttering whey-faced tribe that gave him suck, stands tall like a giant and sends the first pitch out of the park to tie it. Oh, the pain. Flat feet, fire in your legs, your poor tired old heart skipping a beat in mortification. And now Dupuy, red in the face, shouting: The game could be over but for you, you crazy gimpy old beaner washout! You want to hide in your locker, bury yourself under the shower-room floor, but you have to watch as the next two men reach base and you pray with fervor that they'll score and put an end to your debasement. But no, Thorkelsson whiffs and the new inning dawns as inevitably as the new minute, the new hour, the new day, endless, implacable, world without end.

But wait, wait: who's going to pitch? Dorfman's out, there's nobody left, the astonishing thirty-second inning is marching across the scoreboard like an invading army, and suddenly Dupuy is standing over you—no, no, he's down on one knee, begging. Hector, he's saying, didn't you use to pitch down in Mexico when you were a kid, didn't I hear that someplace? Yes, you're saying, yes, but that was—

And then you're out on the mound, in command once again, elevated like some half-mad old king in a play, and throwing smoke. The first two batters go down on strikes and the fans are rabid with excitement, Asuncion will raise a shrine, Hector Jr. worships you more than all the poets that ever lived, but can it be? You walk the next three and then give up the grand slam to little Tommy Oshimisi! Mother of God, will it never cease? But wait, wait, wait: here comes the bottom of the thirty-second and Brannerman's wild. He walks a couple, gets a couple out, somebody reaches on an infield single and the bases are loaded for you, Hector Quesadilla, stepping up to the plate now like the Iron Man himself. The wind-up, the delivery, the ball hanging there like a pinata, like a birthday gift, and then the stick flashes in your hands like an archangel's sword, and the game goes on forever.

What was it that B.B. sang about? There is always one more time.

Whales Weep. This one was a big disappointment. I'll give Boyle the benefit of the doubt and conclude that the story is about how disconnected modern society is from the primal forces of mystery, power and indifference that subsume Moby-Dick, and that it's not his own personal reaction to reading that novel. Because Boyle's story touches the essence only once, when the narrator is able to reach out and touch a whale:

Grace wheeled the raft round on him, throttle cranked down to idle, and as we came up alongside him I reached out and patted his cool, smooth hide. It was like patting a very wet horse the size of a house. I laid my open palm against the immensity of the whale's flank and for one mad moment thought I could feel the blood coursing through him, the colossal heart beating time with the roll of the tides and the crash of distant oceans; I felt I was reaching out and touching the great steaming heart of the planet itself. And then, in a rush of foam, he was gone.

The New Moon Party. This one is just plain goofy.

Not a Leg to Stand On. And this one I had a hard time following. It's like some of these stories aren't really stories at all. They're just incidents. Like the sketches posing as stories in that John Updike collection I read. Except I didn't come to appreciate Boyle's the way I came to appreciate Updike's. I can appreciate Boyle's prose, but in these incidents/stories, he never really engages me or gets me interested in what's going to happen next.

Stones in My Passway, Hellhound on My Trail. This one is also not a story, but neither is it an incident. It is, in the end, an emotion—an emotion put into story form—and that emotion is the one you feel when listening to the Blues. In form it is little more than a series of snapshots (fictional ones, I assume) in the life of legendary Blues pioneer Robert Johnson. The one I found particuarly compelling was a remembrance of a time when Johnson was fifteen and he watched a poisoned dog tear out its entrails.

They were out in the fields when a voice shouted, "Loup's gone mad!," and then he was running with the rest of them, down the slope and across the red dust road, past the shanties and into the gully where they dumped their trash, the dog crying high over the sun and then baying deep as craters in the moon. It was a coonhound, tawny, big-boned, the color of a lion. Robert pushed through the gathering crowd and stood watching as the animal dragged its hindquarters along the ground like a birthing bitch, the ropy testicles strung out behind. It was mewling now, the high-pitched cries sawing away at each breath, and then it was baying again, howling death until the day was filled with it, their ears and the pits of their stomachs soured with it. One of the men said in a terse, angry voice, "Go get Turkey Nason to come on down here with his gun," and a boy detached himself from the crowd and darted up the rise.

It was then that the dog fell heavily to its side, ribs heaving, and began to dig at its stomach with long racing thrusts of the rear legs. There was yellow foam on the black muzzle, blood bright in the nostrils. The dog screamed and dug, dug until the flesh was raw and its teeth could puncture the cavity to get at the gray intestine, tugging first at a bulb of it and then fastening on a lank strand like dirty wash. There was no sign of the gun. The woman beside Robert began to cry, a sound like crumpling paper. Then one of the men stepped in with a shovel in his hand. He hit the dog once across the eyes and the animal lunged for him. The shovel fell twice more and the dog stiffened, its yellow eyes gazing round the circle of men, the litter of bottles and cans and rusted machinery, its head lolling on the lean, muscular neck, poised for one terrible moment, and then it was over. Afterward Robert came close: to look at the frozen teeth, the thin, rigid limbs, the green flies on the pink organs.

In the end, Johnson dies the same way, poisoned by a jealous woman.

All Shook Up. A good but fairly straightforward story, about a man separated from his wife and his affair with the mousy wife of his Elvis impersonating neighbor. Eventually, he breaks it off with Priscilla and lets his wife come back home.

A Bird in Hand. Two stories, both about birds, juxtaposed with each other. Not sure what they mean individually or being paired with one another. Maybe that someone's beauty is another person's horror.

Two Ships. As in two ships passing in the night. A story of two boyhood friends who grow apart, one descending into madness while the other adopts the comfortable life the first can neither attain nor stomach. Well written, practically my favorite story in the collection for the way it lifts the blanket off of madness, revealing the underbelly that sustains it, without ever succumbing to its allure. But a poor and unsatisfying ending. It would have to be expanded into a novel to do its subject justice.

Rara Avis. It means "rare bird." I had to look it up. Odd little story about a strange bird that lands on the roof of a grocery store, captures the town's momentary attention for its beauty and strangeness, and ends with the townsfolk beginning to stone it to death when a gust of wind reveals a deep injury under its feathers. We admire the odd, but destroy the weak? Is that what it means?

The Overcoat II. This is one of life's funny little coincidences. Just the other night my wife and I watched the film The Namesake, in which a major character idolizes the author Nikolai Gogol, and especially his short story The Overcoat. As a testament to just how little I actually know about Russian Literature, I had never heard of The Overcoat or Nikolai Gogol before. Then, I read the concluding story in Boyle's collection—The Overcoat II, about a Russian named Akaky Akakievich, a small man subsumed by the high ideals of the Russian state, whose life is transformed by the acquisition of a bourgeois overcoat—and I think to myself, hey, I wonder if this is some kind of homage to that story written by that Gogol guy?

Short answer—yes. Turns out The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol is not only the most influential piece of fiction in all of Russian Literature, it's the work that practically defined the short story form that everyone else has been copying ever since. Boy, do I feel like I just kicked over the samovar.

Boyle's take is an interesting one. Gogol wrote his story in 1842, so Boyle updated it a little by putting Akaky in the time just before the fall of communism, when black market capitalist goods are flooding in and every one worth his salt has long abandoned the principles of the revolution for the expediencies of the free market. Gogol's overcoat was a symbol of Russian strength and craftmanship. Boyle's was made in Hong Kong and is a symbol of the forces destroying that tradition. It's a great story for Boyle to end his collection on, and I wish I would've read Gogol's original before reading it.

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