T. CORAGHESSAN BOYLE is the sort of writer who inspires even poker-faced reviewers to grin and start dusting off their superlatives. He has written two much-praised novels, and some of his early stories, collected in Descent of Man, were virtuosic show-stoppers. I recall particularly "Heart of a Champion," in which Lassie is exposed as a secret canine slut, and "Bloodfall," in which a bout of bad weather segues into a rain of blood. There was something breathtaking about the way Boyle could posit such jolting premises and then guide them into esthetically satisfying channels.
Greasy Lake & Other Stories contains a few entries built on brazen foundations: "Ike and Nina" celebrates an imaginary love-affair between the golfing president and the cherubic wife of Premier Khrushchev; "The New Moon Party" features a politician elected president on the strength of his promise to replace the tarnished natural moon with a shiny new artificial one. The author elaborates such donn,es with his customary flair, but it happens that these stories are among the least impressive in the new batch.
Boyle has evidently reached the point -- and it is a lofty one -- where he can put aside his sorcerer's wand and dazzle the reader merely by telling prosaic tales extraordinarily well. The title piece is an example. It's a coming-of- age story in which a prank played by some surburban youths goes amok. It begins with a sure-footed prelude that accounts for Greasy Lake's tribal appeal. "We went up to the lake because every one went there, because we wanted to snuff the rich scent of possibility on the breeze, watch a girl take off her clothes and plunge into the festering murk, drink beer, smoke pot, howl at the stars, savor the incongruous full-throated roar of rock and roll against the primeval susurrus of frogs and crickets. This was nature."
Then comes the prank -- a shivaree that targets the wrong couple. The baited male swings into action. The narrator lays him out with a wrench. Redneck reinforcements arrive. The narrator plunges into the lake, where he makes a hideous discovery. Recovered, the main redneck goes on a rampage. "Tire iron flailing, the greasy bad character was laying into the side of my mother's Bel Air like an avenging demon, his shadow riding up the trunks of the trees." Eventually the rednecks leave, the shaken suburbanites regroup. As they drive away from the lake, their battered car shakes off "pellets of glass like an old dog shedding water after a bath."
This is all told so straightforwardly that there seems to be nothing to it. Nothing that is but subjects like sex, violence, death, and remorse, all developed with flawless pacing and word-choice that seems the verbal equivalent of perfect pitch.
IN "All Shook Up" Boyle grabs a hold of a trendier subject, Elvis impersonation, but not with the surreal grip that a fan of his earlier work might expect. (One can imagine such outlandish possibilities as the dead Elvis rising vengefully from the grave to pull down the proscenium pillars on a stage full of these parasitical illusionists.) This pseudo- King is so pathetically awful that he drives his Kewpie-doll wife into the arms of their neighbor, who accepts her for fling purposes only to realize that she and her squalling infant mean to stay.
It's another plain tale, told with marvelous economy and spiked with telling observations, like the response Elvis tended to evoke in those too young to catch him in his prime. "By the time I gave up pellet guns and minibikes and began listening to rock and roll, it was the Doors, Stones, and Hendrix, and Elvis was already degenerating into a caricature of himself. I remembered him as a bloated old has-been in a white jumpsuit, crooning corny ballads and slobbering on middle-aged women."
"Overcoat II" updates Gogol's classic fable to the consumer hell of contemporary Moscow. "Not a Leg to Stand On" takes the reader deep into the life of an aged pensioner, wheelchair- bound, who reconciles himself to boarding with a family of ever-stoned petty burglars because the alternative of a nursing home is even less attractive. These and other stories display a range and catholic empathy missing from Boyle's earlier, showier work.
Boyle will always be able to pull off a consciousness-razing extravaganza when he wants to, but in this collection he demonstrates that he doesn't need lurid devices like blood-sleets and dog-sluts to make a profound impact. T. Coraghessan Boyle is one of the most gifted writers of his generation (he is still in his thirties), and in Greasy Lake & Other Stories he has moved beyond a prodigy's audacity to something that packs even more of a wallop: mature artistry.