WORLD'S END By T. Coraghessan Boyle Viking. 456 pp. $19.95
TCORAGHESSAN BOYLE has the gift of gab, and in his third novel and fifth work of fiction he displays a talent so effortlessly satirical and fluid that it suggests an image of the author at a crowded inn of wicked wits in a tale-telling fight for best space at the hearth.
World's End is a rollicking and dark fable of the Hudson River valley stretching from its Dutch foundation to the American contretemps during the Vietnam war. It is written with a voice that can compete with Swift, Byron, Irving, Twain and all those anonymous Irish liars.
The story begins in the summer of 1968 in the make-believe village of Peterskill, N.Y. (Boyle is a native of Peekskill), deep within the haunted fens where the mountains find the Hudson. Walter Truman Van Brunt, a Cornell graduate who is awaiting the draft at the local foundry, is celebrating his 22nd birthay with drink, drugs and contrariness. Rather than go straight home to his foster family and his beloved Jessica, he lingers at a tavern with rascals. Soon, in a haze, he is swimming into the Hudson along with the luscious Mardi Van Wart, the wealthy daughter of local gentry. Mardi dares him to climb aboard one of the ghost fleet of freighters anchored since the Second World War near West Point. Her perilous contract implies herself as reward. Walter complies, only to encounter his grandmother's ghost and other demiurges; he also suffers what he calls "an attack of history."
Panicky Walter flees to his motorcycle, presently missing a curve and rudely finding one of those roadside historical markers. It reports in Historical Society prose, "On this spot in 1693, Cadwallader Crane, leader of an armed uprising on Van Wart Manor, surrendered to authorities. He was hanged, along with his co-conspirator Jeremy Mohank, at Gallows Hill, in 1694."
Walter has been attacked by history and lost a foot. What follows is a literary dig into the mysterious rise and ruin of Peterskill. There are no accidents in Boyle's tales; fate is a smirking arbiter.
In alternating chapters, sewn together by the author's jocular tongue and not a little of what could be called love of the Lilliputian in characters, Boyle investigates what has laid footloose Walter low. The trail begins with the Kitchawanks, the Native American tribe who first thrived thereabouts. They are bedeviled by the flesh-eating Mohawks and then introduced to capitalism by the poltroonish Dutch, who matter-of-factly steal everything.
Enter the patroonish Van Warts in the mid-17th century, reaching out from their roost in Haarlem to lay claim to the land and to subcontract to tenant farmers. Thereupon come the strong-backed and weak-minded Van Brunts, who plow land suspected of being cursed; and the Cranes, who lurch toward pedagogy and school-making.
The Kitchawanks are not absent, just disowned. They circle the white slaves gingerly until one of their number, Mohank, is called upon by the luckless Van Warts to rid them of a strange mind affliction that would have delighted Washington Irving. Planting the land has made Harmanus Van Brunt ravenous and he is eating himself and his family to death. Kitchawank magic prevails for a moment, but finally the Van Brunts are shattered: the daughter has run away to produce a vengeful half-breed named Jeremias Mohonk, and the son is left footless and Van Wart-hating.
THREE CENTURIES later, the same players occupy the same cursed ground and inescapable stations. Depeyster Van Wart is a modish, 51-year-old, right-wing Yalie who would dine with the devil for a male heir. The Van Brunts are a shattered family, with father runaway and suspect as having betrayed the town during a riot in 1949 and mother dead of grief. The Cranes are represented by the draft-dodging and ecology-minded Tom Crane. And the Kitchawanks are reduced to one unrepentant, fiftyish convict named Jeremy, who has sexual appetites that include the mistress Van Wart.
At the close all is hilarious and cruel. One is left in that crowded inn waiting for this great banshee of a liar to begin again. Boyle's short story collections are lurid folk tales. His Water Music (1982) remade Africa into a pleasure dome of randy folly. Budding Prospects (1984) was a doper's progress. He is now said to be in Ireland plundering the bogs for leprechauns who escaped Cromwell.
John Calvin Batchelor's new novel, "The True Story of the Russian Moon Landing," will be published next year.