Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Descent of Man by T. Coraghessan Boyle

This was a disappointment. Boyle is unquestionably one of my favorite authors, and this is among the worst collections of short stories I have read.

It’s his first. Maybe that forms part of the explanation. They do read more like writing exercises than stories--experimental pieces of fiction in which the young Boyle is only attempting to explore a particular concept, story idea, or literary form. Here’s the manifest of those easily passed over:

Descent of Man = Primate researcher falls in love with the chimp she’s teaching to speak in sign language.

The Champ = Eating contest champion challenged by young upstart; told in the style of a gritty boxing fable.

The Second Swimming = Something about Chairman Mao taking a swim.

Dada = Ida Amin brought to New York to reside over a Dada art festival because his nickname is Big Daddy.

The Extinction Tales = Some vignettes about species dying because of man’s actions.

Caye = Lives and loves of people living on a small island.

The Big Garage = An auto repair shop that is a waystation to nowhere on the existential highway of life.

Earth, Moon = The decay that happens on Earth while an astronaut is off on the Moon.

Quetzalcoatl Lite = Competitive collectors searching for ancient beer cans.

De Rerum Natura = An inventor whose inventions are new biological forms and the strange menagerie he attracts/creates.

John Barleycorn Lives = A battle of wits between women teetotallers and men who enjoy the drink.

Drowning = A foreshadowed drowning is lost amidst scenes of rape and violence.

None of these are stories in any real sense of the word. They are writing exercises--ones in which we can watch Boyle flex his narrative muscles, but none of which congeal into something that’s worth revisiting.

There are a few exceptions:

We Are Norsemen

A comic tale of a Norse bard and his band of marauders, sacking the New World and Ireland for whatever riches they will surrender. The unnamed narrator begins a bit sympathetic to the reader--the most cultured of his uncultured comrades--and the narrative voice piles on the literary allusions to help drive the point home. But at the end, in their last described sacking, the narrator focuses his anger on a lonely scribe.

The monk sat at a table, his hands clenched, head bent over a massive tome. He was just as I’d pictured him: pale as milk, a fringe of dark pubic hair around his tonsure, puny and frail. He did not look up. I growled again, and when I got no response I began to slash at candles and pitchers and icons and all the other superstitious trappings of the place. Pottery splashed to the floor, shelves tumbled. Still he bent over the book.

The book. What in Frigg’s name was a book anyway? Scratchings on a sheet of cowhide. Could you fasten a cloak with it, carry mead in it, impress women with it, wear it in your hair? There was gold and silver scattered round the room, and yet he sat over the book as if it could glow or talk or something. The idiot. The pale, puny, unhardy, unbold idiot. A rage came over me at the thought of it--I shoved him aside and snatched up the book, thick pages, dark characters, the mystery and magic. Snatched it up, me, a poet, a Norseman, an annihilator, and illiterate. Snatched it up and watched the old monk’s suffering features as I fed it, page by filthy page, into the fire. Ha!

And the reader turns on the narrator, recognizing how ignorant and short-sighted he is.

Heart of a Champion

A story about a dog--a collie like Lassie--that displays uncanny intelligence and facility in rescuing her boy owner from one desperate situation after another. Except this Lassie has fallen for an gives herself over to the carnal appetites of a “stunted, scabious, syphilitic” coyote.

We remark how odd it is that the birds and crickets have left off their cheeping, how puzzling that the background music has begun to rumble so. Suddenly, round a bend in the path before them, the coyote appears. Nose to the ground, intent, unaware of them. But all at once he jerks to a halt, shudders like an epileptic, the hackles rising, tail dipping between his legs. The collie too stops short, just yards away, her chest proud and shaggy and white. The coyote cowers, bunches like a cat, glares at them. Timmy’s face sags with alarm. The coyote lifts his lip. But then, instead of leaping at her adversary’s throat, the collie prances up and stretches her nose out to him, her eyes soft as a leading lady’s, round as a doe’s. She’s balsamed and perfumed; her full chest tapers to a lovely S to her sleek haunches and sculpted legs. He is puny, runted, half her size, his coat like a discarded doormat. She circles him now, sniffing. She whimpers, he growls: throaty and tough, the bad guy. And stands stiff while she licks at his whiskers, noses at his rear, the bald black scrotum. Timmy is horror-struck. Then, the music sweeping off in birdtrills of flute and harpstring, the coyote slips round behind, throat thrown back, black lips tight with anticipation.

The best part is the narrative style, which is conscious of its own scene setting and stage direction; short and clipped like an MTV video.

The jolting front seat of a Ford. Dad, Mom and the Doctor, all dressed in rain slickers and flap-brimmed rain hats, sitting shoulder to shoulder behind the clapping wipers. Their jaws set with determination, eyes aflicker with pioneer gumption.

Every word counts in that one.

The ending is not the best, but there is something going on here that’s deeper than just the idea and the narrative flair. Something about our view of the hero and the evolutionary forces that drive, in this case, her away from that which wins her our admiration.


A communal house, filled with hippies and druggies, is besieged when it inexplicably begins raining blood.

It started about three-thirty, a delicate tapping at the windows, the sound of rain. No one noticed: the stereo was turned up full and Walt was thumping his bass along with it, the TV was going, they were all stones, passing wine and a glowing pipe, singing along with the records, playing Botticelli and Careers and Monopoly, crunching crackers. I noticed. In that brief scratching silence between songs, I heard it--looked up at the window and saw the first red droplets huddled there, more falling between them. Gesh and Scott and Isabelle were watching TV with the sound off, digging the music, lighting cigarettes, tapping fingers and feet, laughing. On the low table were cheese, oranges, wine, shiny paperbacks, a hash pipe. Incense smoked from a pendant urn. The three dogs sprawled on the carpet by the fireplace, Siamese cats curled on the mantel, the bench, the chair. The red droplets quivered, were struck by other, larger drops falling atop them, and began a meandering course down the windowpane. Alice laughed from the kitchen. She and Amy were peeling vegetables, baking pies, uncanning baby smoked oysters and sturgeon for hors d’oeuvres, sucking on olive pits. The windows were streaked with red. The music was too loud. No one noticed. It was another day.

The prose is Boyle at his very best. The words are choice and full of depth and meaning, but nothing is played over the top--as it so easily could be, given the subject matter. An absolute joy to read.

A Woman’s Restaurant

This one is absolutely fascinating. Ostensibly a story about a man who wants to invade the sacred sanctuary of a restaurant that admits only female clientele, but also an exploration of the aboriginal female essence that has been a mystery misunderstood and oppressed by men throughout human history.

A woman’s restaurant. The concept inflames me. There are times, at home, fish poached, pots scrubbed, my mind gone blank, when suddenly it begins to rise in my consciousness, a sunken log heaving to the surface. A woman’s restaurant. The injustice of it, the snobbery, the savory dark mothering mystery: what do they do in there?

The restaurant is owned and managed by two women--Rubie and Grace--and they are a pair of opposites.

Grace, for instance. I know Grace. She is tall, six three or four I would guess, thin and slightly stooped, her shoulders rounded like a question mark. Midthirties. Not married. She walks her square-headed cat on a leash, an advocate of women’s rights. Rubie I have spoken with. If Grace is austere, a cactus tall and thorny, Rubie is lush, a spreading peony. She is a dancer. Five feet tall, ninety pounds, twenty-four years old. Facts. She told me one afternoon, months ago, in a bar. I was sitting at a table, alone, reading, a glass of beer sizzling in the sunlight through the window. Her arms and shoulders were bare, the thin straps of her dancer’s tights, blue jeans. She was twirling, on points, between groups of people, her laughter like a honky-tonk piano.

Or maybe not opposites--maybe they are twin poles of femininity, especially as viewed from afar the way our narrator does. And when Rubie comes close to violating the sacred sanctuary of their restaurant--admitting an man to whom she is naturally and wholesomely attracted--Grace, the stooped and rigid enforcer of the feminine mystique, acts to immediately rectify one of the sources of Rubie’s allure.

I shadowed Rubie for eight blocks this morning. There were packages in her arms. Her walk was the walk of a slow-haunching beast. As she passed the dark windows of the shops she turned to watch her reflection, gliding, flashing in the sun, her bare arms, clogs, the tips of her painted toenails peeping from beneath the wide-bottomed jeans. Her hair loose, undulating across her back like a wheatfield in the wind. She stopped under the candy-striped pole outside Red’s Barber Shop.

I crossed the street, sat on a bench and opened a book. Then I saw Grace: slouching, wide-striding, awkward. Her sharp nose, the bulb of frizzed hair. She walked up to Rubie, unsmiling. They exchanged cheek-pecks and stepped into the barber shop.

When they emerged I dropped my book: Rubie was desecrated. Her head shaven, the wild lanks of hair hacked to stubble. Charley Manson, I thought. Auschwitz. Nuns and neophytes. Grace was smiling. Rubie’s ears stuck out from her head, the color of butchered chicken. Her neck and temples were white as flour, blue-veined and vulnerable. I was appalled.

They walked quickly, stiffly, Rubie hurrying to match Grace’s long strides. Grace a sunflower, Rubie a stripped dandelion. I followed them to the woman’s restaurant. Rubie did not turn to glance at her reflection in the shop windows.

There’s a lot of this throughout A Woman’s Restaurant--narrative that works on the level of the story, but which also contain currents of deeper truth and exploration. In many ways, this is a real gem of this collection.

Green Hell

And finally...

There has been a collision (with birds, black flocks of them), an announcement from the pilot’s cabin, a moment of abeyed hysteria, and then the downward rush. The plane is nosing for the ground at a forty-five-degree angle, engines wheezing, spewing smoke and feathers. Lights flash, breathing apparatus drops and dangles. Our drinks become lariats, the glasses knives. Lunch (chicken croquettes, gravy, reconstituted potatoes and imitation cranberry sauce) decorates our shirts and vests. Outside there is the shriek of the air over the wings; inside, the rock-dust rumble of grinding teeth, molar on molar. My face seems to be slipping over my head like a rubber mask. And then, horribly, the first trees become visible beyond the windows. we gasp once and then we’re down, skidding through the greenery, jolted from our seats, panicked, repentant, savage. Windows strain and pop like light bulbs. We lose out bowels. The plane grates through the trees, the shriek of branches like the keen of harpies along the fuselage, our bodies jarred, dashed and knocked like the silver balls in a pinball machine. And then suddenly it’s over: we are stopped (think of a high diver meeting the board on the way down). I expect (have expected) flames.

There are no flames. There is blood. Thick clots of it, puddles, ponds, lakes. We count heads. Eight of us still have them: myself, the professor, the pilot (his arm already bound up in a sparkling white sling), the mime, Tanqueray with a twist (nothing worse than a gin drinker), the man allergic to cats (runny eyes, red nose), the cat breeder, and Andrea, the stewardess. The cats, to a one, have survived. They crouch in their cages, coated with wet kitty litter like tempura shrimp. The rugby players, all twelve of them (dark-faced, scowling sorts), are dead. Perhaps just as well.

Dazed, palms pressed to bruised organs, handkerchiefs dabbing at wounds, we hobble from the wreckage. Tanqueray is sniveling, a soft moan and gargle like rain on the roof and down the gutter. The mime makes an Emmett Kelly face. The professor limps, cradling a black briefcase with Fiskeridirektoratets Havforskningsinstitutt engraved in the corner. The cats, left aboard, begin to yowl. The allergic man throws back his head, sneezes.

We look around: trees that go up three hundred feet, lianas, leaves the size of shower curtains, weeds thick as a knit sweater. Step back ten feet and the plane disappears. The pilot breaks the news: we’ve come down in the heart of the Amazon basin, hundred perhaps thousands of miles from the nearest toilet.

The radio, of course, is dead.

So begins what may be the purest Boyle story in the collection--the one that is so brilliantly a parody of itself, and yet a story that entertains and keeps you engaged to the very end. It’s a work of genius, if only for the mime.

Hmmm. Maybe this collection of stories wasn’t so bad after all.

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