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Analysis of T. C. Boyle’s Novels

T. Coraghessan Boyle’s (1948- ) novels have been praised for their originality, style, and comic energy. At a time when his contemporaries seem obsessed with the mundane details of everyday life—presented in a minimalist style—Boyle approaches fiction as an iconoclastic storyteller who embraces and borrows from the entire history of narrative literature, celebrating the profane, often-absurd complexities of human endeavors.

Boyle’s novels concern the misconceptions people of different sexes, races, nationalities, and backgrounds have about one another and the misunderstandings—some violent—that result. The clashes between Britons and Africans in Water Music, drug entrepreneurs and Northern California rednecks in Budding Prospects, Indians and Dutch settlers in New York in World’s End, Americans and a half-American Japanese in East Is East, and privileged white Southern Californians and destitute illegal Mexican immigrants in The Tortilla Curtain all allow Boyle to satirize the prejudices, eccentricities, and excesses of several cultures.

Boyle’s ironic fiction is populated by a multitude of diverse characters, all convinced that theirs is the only possible way of perceiving and dealing with a complex, changing, often-hostile world. Boyle alternates the viewpoints of these protagonists to present events and issues from all possible sides and increase the irony of the situations. He writes both in a straightforward, economical style and in more ornate prose resembling that of such popular writers as John Barth and Thomas Pynchon. Far from being didactic, Boyle’s serious fiction entertains through his masterful storytelling ability and through his control of his vivid style.

Water Music

Water Music alternates between the stories of Scottish explorer Mungo Park and London criminal Ned Rise until their destinies converge in Africa. Park (1771-1806), the first European to see West Africa’s upper Niger River, wrote a bestselling account of his adventures, Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa (1797), led a larger expedition into the interior of Africa, and drowned in the rapids of the Niger during an attack by Africans. Boyle’s fictionalized Park and the low-born Rise are used to contrast the levels of English society and attitudes toward the British Empire.

A public hero, Park is less than heroic as imagined by Boyle. He thinks that he has had unique experiences because he is unable to recognize the humanity of the Africans he encounters. He selfishly ignores Ailie, his long-suffering fiancé and later devoted wife, thinking nothing of leaving her behind for years while he strives for glory. Park is less concerned with any benefits to humankind resulting from his expeditions than with mere adventure and fame. This need leads him to distort and romanticize his experiences in his writings. The irony of these exploits is that Park would be totally lost without the assistance of such nonwhites as Johnson, born Katunga Oyo. Sold into slavery in America, Johnson learns to read, wins his freedom, becomes a highly respected valet in London, and translates Henry Fielding’s Amelia (1751) into Mandingo before returning to Africa. His earthy yet sophisticated realism strongly contrasts with Park’s muddled idealism. Park’s moral blindness suggests some of the causes of the collapse of the empire.

Ned Rise, on the other hand, is a victim in the tradition of the picaros created by Fielding, Daniel Defoe, and Charles Dickens. (Dickens’s mixture of colorful characterizations, humor, and moral outrage, as well as his use of odd names, seems to be a major influence on Boyle.) Rise is stolen from his mother at birth and forced to become a beggar when old enough. He has his right hand mutilated by a cleaver, is nearly drowned, is robbed, is wrongfully imprisoned and hanged—coming to life as he is about to be dissected—loses his true love, Fanny Brunch, is imprisoned again, and is shipped to Africa to become part of Park’s fatal expedition. Park’s Great Britain represents culture and privilege; Ned’s stands for the poverty and depravity at the extreme other end of the social scale. However, the ironically named Rise learns to survive.

In the tradition of such classics of the American picaresque novel as John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) and Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (1964), Water Music is an entertaining black comedy, a deliberately anachronistic, self-conscious narrative that frequently calls attention to its form and style. Boyle’s delight in being a literary show-off, a tendency he has subdued as his career has progressed, led some of the novel’s reviewers to dismiss it as a stunt, but Water Music quickly developed a cult following and has come to be seen as a clear announcement of the debut of an original, irreverent talent.

Budding Prospects

Boyle presents another ill-conceived adventure, though on a much smaller scale, in Budding Prospects: A Pastoral. Its thirty-one-year-old protagonist, Felix Nasmyth, is a chronic failure given another shot at success by the mysterious Vogelsang, a Vietnam War veteran and sociopath. With the assistance of Boyd Dowst, holder of a master’s degree in botany from Yale University, Felix is to grow marijuana in rural Northern California. Vogelsang promises the desperate Felix that he will earn a half-million dollars from the enterprise.

Felix and his inept friends Phil and Gesh experience culture shock in isolated Willits, whose aggressively antagonistic citizens consider themselves morally superior to the rest of the decadent world. Obstacles to raising a productive marijuana crop include rain, fire, a hungry bear, a 320-pound alumnus of the state mental hospital’s violent ward, and John Jerpbak, a menacing policeman who, like everyone in Willits, knows what Felix is doing. The comedy of Budding Prospects results from the dogged perseverance of Felix and friends in this doomed endeavor.

Beside his usual theme of individuals out of their element in a strange environment, Boyle offers a satire of the American free-enterprise system. As he interprets it, the system is motivated primarily by greed, with success coming less through intelligence or hard work than through luck. The dubious morality of Felix’s project only adds to the irony. He and his friends want to get rich quickly and are honest only in admitting that they care about nothing but money. The fact that they work harder to fail in an illegal business than they would to earn money honestly is yet another irony in a highly ironic tale. Felix’s unreliable narration as he constantly compares himself to the pioneers who settled America adds comic hyperbole. Such humor keeps Boyle’s examination of the materialistic side of the American Dream from being preachy.

World’s End

Boyle returned to a larger canvas with World’s End, his most ambitious and least comic novel, a consideration of America’s self-destructive impulse. The Van Brunts, Dutch settlers in what is now northern Westchester County, New York, in the late seventeenth century, experience conflicts with a hostile nature and the voracious Van Warts, the patroons who own the land they farm. The lives of the Van Brunts become intertwined with those of the Kitchawanks, their Indian neighbors. The greedy machinations of the Van Warts lead to misery for the settlers and Indians and death for several of them.

Boyle alternates chapters about these characters with ones dealing with their twentieth century descendants, including Jeremy Mohonk, the last of the Kitchawanks, whose efforts to regain his birthright (stolen by the Van Warts) earn for him seventeen years in prison. Truman Van Brunt betrays his friends and relatives to save himself, just as one of the original Van Brunts had done. The protagonist of the twentieth century chapters isWalter Van Brunt, reared by communists after Truman runs away and his mother dies. During the late 1960’s, Walter is torn between the countercultural life led by his friends and the wealth and social position of the Van Warts. After losing his wife when she finds him in bed with Mardi VanWart and losing both his feet in separate motorcycle accidents, Walter tracks down his lost father in Barrow, Alaska, to discover that Truman has spent years researching his family’s history to justify his actions. Walter returns home thoroughly disillusioned, and Jeremy Mohonk gains revenge against his enemies by impregnating the wife of the current Van Wart, ironically allowing the despised line to continue.

In World’s End, Boyle shows how people of different races, sexes, and social and economic backgrounds exploit, betray, and fail one another. The characters either are desperate to control their destinies or consider themselves the victims of fates they are incapable of overcoming. Almost everyone is self-deluding, from the rightwing fanatic Dipe Van Wart in his pathetic attempts to resist change, to Walter, who sees himself as an alienated, existential antihero in the tradition of Meursault in Albert Camus’s L’Étranger (1942; The Stranger, 1946). Walter thinks that his life will fall into place if he can understand his father, yet finding Truman leads only to confusion.

As Boyle rifles English literary traditions as part of his satire in Water Music, in World’s End he draws upon the mythical views of America espoused by such writers as Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and William Faulkner. From the destruction of the virgin wilderness to the exploitation of the Indian to the curses inflicted upon several generations of characters to fatal obsession with the inexplicable, the novel is virtually a catalog of traditional American literary themes.

World’s End represents a new maturity in Boyle as an artist. In it he eschews the too-easy irony and too-obvious satire that occasionally weaken his earlier fiction, while he confirms his skill at storytelling. Though World’s End is a sprawling novel with more than one hundred characters, Boyle exerts masterful control over his complicated, overlapping plots, expecting his readers to share his joy in the manipulation of so many coincidences, parallels, and ironies.

East Is East

The inability of people of different backgrounds to understand one another is even more at the center of East Is East than of Boyle’s other novels. Hiro Tanaka, a twenty-year-old cook on a Japanese ship, jumps overboard off the coast of Georgia. Hiro, another Boyle orphan, has never known his father, an American rock musician who loved and left Hiro’s mother, an eventual suicide. Ostracized by Japanese society for being half American, Hiro longs to lose himself in the great melting pot but unfortunately washes ashore on isolated Tupelo Island, site of Thanatopsis House, an artists’ colony.

After a series of confused encounters with the local people, Hiro finds refuge in the cottage of Ruth Dershowitz. A mediocre writer from California, Ruth is at Thanatopsis thanks to being the lover of Saxby Lights, son of Septima Lights, the colony’s founder. Ruth pities the hungry, frightened fugitive from immigration authorities but also longs to incorporate Hiro into a short story with which she is having difficulty. Saxby finds out about Hiro, who is imprisoned, escapes to the Okefenokee Swamp, and is arrested again when near death.

Both the white and the black residents of Tupelo Island are frightened by their Japanese visitor, who is equally bewildered by them. Detlef Abercorn, the immigration official sent to find Hiro, is from Los Angeles and feels totally alienated in the South. An albino, he, like Hiro, has never truly fit in anywhere. Abercorn is assisted by Lewis Turco, a veteran of covert operations in Southeast Asia, who prides himself on being in control in any environment, but he is so paranoid that he creates nothing but chaos. No one in East Is East understands or trusts anyone else. The writers, painters, sculptors, and composers at Thanatopsis, who should be able to transcend the cultural differences that handicap the others, are instead so self-absorbed and crippled by petty jealousies that they are totally ineffective as human beings.

Hiro is another Boyle innocent destroyed by his inability to deal with the world’s complexities and hostilities and by his own foolishness. Hiro has a system of beliefs— based on Japanese writer Yukio Mishima’s theory of the samurai—to help guide him, but Mishima proves tragicomically ineffective in the Georgia swamps. Hiro trusts Ruth, to a degree, because he has no one else, and while she genuinely wants to help, her needs must come first. Ruth, the most fully developed female character in Boyle’s novels, ironically finds success through being caught harboring an illegal immigrant, for she then lands a book contract to tell her story. The unscrupulousness of supposedly sensitive artists is as much the target of Boyle’s satirical ire as are cultural differences.

The Road to Wellville

Similar to each other in scheme and scope, The Road to Wellville and Riven Rock elaborate the wry appraisal of human nature and American values found in Budding Prospects and East Is East in period tales whose vivid historical tableaux call to mind Boyle’s achievement in Water Music and World’s End.

The Road to Wellville is a farcical examination of the career of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of the corn flake and other “gastrically correct” natural foods. A devout vegetarian and zealous promoter of physical culture, Kellogg opens his Battle Creek Sanitarium to men and women at the beginning of the twentieth century, hoping to win them over to his vision of a healthier lifestyle through carefully restricted diets, vigorous exercise regimens, and crackpot medical interventions that include yogurt enemas and sinusoidal baths. Kellogg’s “Temple of Health,” as some deem it, is a magnet for celebrities, socialites, eccentrics, and connivers who represent a cross section of Boyle’s America.

Among them is Eleanor Lightbody, an independent woman and self-proclaimed “Battle Freak” whose sense of liberation is tied to her willing embrace of Kellogg’s instruction. Intelligent and principled, Eleanor is blind to the absurdity of Kellogg’s methods and to the misery they cause her sickly husband, Will, who suffers the increasingly dangerous indignities of rehabilitation at the sanitarium out of love for his wife. Boyle interweaves the adventures of the Lightbodys with those of Charlie Ossining, a likable scalawag who has squandered the money given him by a patron to establish a competing health food company in Battle Creek. Ossining’s inept efforts to duplicate Kellogg’s products through cheap and eventually devious means offer a comic reflection on the underside of entrepreneurism and the free-enterprise system.

The book’s most interesting character is George Kellogg, one of Dr. Kellogg’s numerous adopted children and a symbol of the Kellogg method’s failure. George spends most of the novel dissipated and disorderly, deliberately embarrassing his father to extort money from him. He embodies the tendency toward entropy that undermines the best-laid plans in all of Boyle’s novels and the irrepressible primitive appetites that get the better of even the most sophisticated characters.

Riven Rock

Boyle develops these character types and traits further in Riven Rock. Set at approximately the same time as The Road to Wellville, Riven Rock portrays another American captain of industry whose personal shortcomings reflect an inherent flaw in the human condition. Stanley McCormick, heir to the McCormick Reaper fortune, is afflicted with an apparently hereditary schizophrenia that manifests as sexual psychopathy. He spends most of the novel locked away at Riven Rock, a family retreat in Santa Barbara, deprived of the company of women—his wife included— because a mere glimpse of them provokes him to profane and lewd attacks. In flashbacks, Boyle portrays Stanley as a naïve and sensitive young man who has perhaps been driven mad by the pressure of family responsibilities, and almost certainly by the insensitivity of women in his life, including his domineering mother and his crusading wife.

As in his other panoramic novels, Boyle refracts the central conflicts and issues through the experiences of a number of characters. Chief among these is Stanley’s wife, Katherine, a caring but ambitious woman who bears a striking resemblance in her attitudes to Eleanor Lightbody of The Road to Wellville. Educated and fiercely independent, Katherine is dedicated to Stanley’s rehabilitation partly out of affection, but also as part of her selfish quest to have a child and know the fulfilled expression of her privilege and will. Edward O’Kane, Stanley’s nurse and caretaker, complements Katherine. Sexually profligate and perpetually hostage to his lusts, he impregnates several women over the course of the novel, which leads to repeated comic complications with their families and his employer. In their own ways, Katherine and O’Kane embody the same appetites that govern Stanley. Boyle emphasizes this point through the efforts of Stanley’s doctors to cure him by studying the insatiable sex drives of monkeys brought to the secluded estate. Riven Rock is possibly Boyle’s most direct attempt to present the competing interests and compelling drives behind a culture and citizens as an expression of Darwinian biological imperatives.

The anger in Boyle’s novels is tempered by the comedy. Even a relatively somber work such as World’s End has moments of sublime silliness, as Dipe Van Wart fights middle-age depression by eating dirt from beneath his ancestral home—a fitting comic metaphor for his family’s neuroticism and mindless consumption of the land. Boyle’s fiction is also notable for the diversity of his style, which changes not only from novel to novel but also from chapter to chapter. He understands well how to play upon the natural rhythms of convoluted sentences and when to resort to the subtler joys of simpler ones, has a vocabulary rivaling Vladimir Nabokov’s, and delights in parody. East Is East offers the mock Faulkner appropriate to a comic novel set in the South, but it avoids the overkill occasionally seen in Boyle’s short stories and earlier novels. The Road to Wellville and Riven Rock are kaleidoscopic narratives in the style of Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray; their broad historical context accommodates their sweeping social satire. Most important is Boyle’s ability to create believable, usually sympathetic, characters caught in absurd quests for truths they are incapable of understanding.

The Inner Circle

During the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, the Kinsey Report, compiled by Dr. Alfred Kinsey, documented the results of a scientific study of male and female sexuality. Boyle’s 2004 novel, The Inner Circle, explores Kinsey’s influence on American sexual and social mores through the voice of John Milk, Kinsey’s assistant and first disciple, who assists Kinsey both in the office and in bed and with both Kinsey’s wife and his own in group sex.

The fictionalization of Kinsey’s story provides a lens through which the book examines the sexual revolution in sharp, provocative detail, especially as Kinsey’s research grows increasingly voyeuristic and exhibitionistic. As Milk becomes part of the “inner circle” of researchers, he and his wife are drawn into experiments that become increasingly uninhibited and increasingly problematic for his marriage. The shyness regarding sexuality that permeates the era in which the book is set makes the research both alluring and alarming to Milk, whose sensibility reflects that of the readers of the Kinsey Report and chronicles the transformation of public attitudes and private behavior.

The book’s primary theme is sex, marriage, and jealousy and the difficulties of attempting to quantify or classify personal interactions. Boyle explores the division between human pride and human animal natures and whether the act of sex can be separated from its emotional and spiritual context. In Kinsey’s crusade to separate sex and morality, his attempt is doomed by his own uncompromising idealism. The novel also serves as a case study of what it means to become another person’s apostle as it explores the impact of Kinsey’s methods on Milk and his marriage.

Other major works
Short fiction: Descent of Man, 1979; Greasy Lake, and Other Stories, 1985; If the River Was Whiskey, 1989; Without a Hero, 1994; T. C. Boyle Stories: The Collected Stories of T. Coraghessan Boyle, 1998; After the Plague: Stories, 2001; Tooth and Claw, 2005; The Human Fly and Other Stories, 2005.
Edited texts: Doubletakes: Pairs of Contemporary Short Stories, 2003.

Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.

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