Short stories: T.C. Boyle's "Wild Child," Jim Harrison's "The Farmer's Daughter" and Amy Bloom's "Where the God of Love Hangs Out"

By Sarah L. Courteau
Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A guide to new collections from some of fiction's top authors.

For years, the publication of another work of fiction by T.C. Boyle has been as dependable as the eruption of Old Faithful. His novels often suffer from this rigorous research-and-development schedule, but Wild Child (Viking, $25.95) is a reminder of the pleasures of his short stories. The 14 pieces in this collection showcase the skills of a master -- of the ironic, the absurd, the tragic -- forced by the confines of the form to shed his characteristic indulgences in favor of precision-cut narratives.

It's hard to shake the suspicion that Boyle is a particularly devoted newspaper reader, searching out the kernels of stories in human nooks and crannies and then clothing them with his own imagination. In "Sin Dolor" a village doctor befriends a boy who cannot feel pain; rather than rendering him superhuman, this deficit leaves the boy vulnerable to exploitation. "The Unlucky Mother of Aquiles Maldonado" records the travails of a young Mexican man who makes it big as an American baseball star and throws his money around back home, where kidnappers are looking for their next mark. In "Admiral" a recent college grad with too much time on her hands takes care of a $250,000 cloned Afghan hound for a rich, childless couple, in a layered tale about the limits of love, money and science. The haunting title story is a novella that packs into 65 pages the brief, impenetrable life of a feral boy plucked from the woods of Napoleonic France. Boyle transcends the bare historical facts of this real-life case without sentimentalizing a figure who remained an awkward enigma to everyone who tried to civilize him.

Jim Harrison, another formidably prolific writer, presents us with three new novellas -- a form he has practically staked out as his own -- in The Farmer's Daughter (Grove, $24). They range over familiar territory: wide open spaces, lots of sex and fishing, and paroxysms of violence. The Patsy Cline country song "The Last Word in Lonesome Is Me" makes a cameo in each story -- deliberate wink or lazy tic, it's hard to say. The title novella, about a young girl who comes of age in the wilds of Montana, reads like an old man's fantasy of a girl's sexual awakening. With her faithful dog and horse by her side, she plots rifle-strapped revenge after being sexually assaulted, then develops a romance with a much older man, all the while reading most of the Western canon in her spare time. Another story, featuring Harrison's recurring character Brown Dog, a hapless, horny Chippewa drifter who drags along a daughter born with fetal alcohol syndrome, has its moments. But, like Brown Dog himself, it doesn't dwell anywhere for too long. The final tale, which concerns a boy who is bitten by a wolf and a hummingbird during a trip to Mexico with his bumbling ornithologist father, is the one that's memorable. The young man becomes a werewolf, and his desperate attempts to manage a normal life for himself amid periodic bouts of lust, voracious meat-eating and aggression speak to anyone who has striven to make his way in the world hobbled by a dark past or a debilitating condition. It's an entirely fitting subject for a writer who often seems to spin his tales outside of time.

Amy Bloom's slim collection Where the God of Love Hangs Out (Random House, $25), which follows her much-praised 2007 novel "Away," is an antidote to the testosterone-laced worldview. These are quiet, well-executed tales of love, loss and family -- women's territory, as some might have it -- that certainly draw on Bloom's experiences as a psychotherapist. But "Where the God of Love Hangs Out" has a bit of a crazy-quilt feel; it's about two-thirds of a book. In a poignant cycle of four stories, longtime friends William and Clare begin an adulterous affair almost against their will, drawn to each other despite the sinews that bind them to others. Bloom beautifully evokes the tenderness of this guilty love between two imperfect people. In another quartet of stories (three of which were published in Bloom's previous collections "Come to Me" and "A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You"), a woman and her stepson negotiate the emotional fallout from the death of her husband, his father -- and the perilously intense feelings they have for each other. There are a few stand-alone stories, but they recede beside Bloom's longer, linked cycles and feel shuffled in. Bloom's book is a reminder that a short story, unlike a serviceable table wine, shouldn't be presented simply to complement the main course.

Courteau is literary editor of the Wilson Quarterly.

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