When T.C. Boyle did his graduate work at the University of Iowa in the late 1970s, he was taught by the emerging writers of his day: Fred Exley, John Irving, Gail Godwin, Jack Leggett, Vance Bourjaily. But it was the bow-tied John Cheever, drunk most of the time as he held forth before Boyle's raggedy cohort, who conveyed the lesson he most values. "I kept making noises about 'experimental writing,' " Boyle writes, "and hailing people like Coover, Pynchon, Barthelme, and John Barth, but Cheever would have none of it. . . . He insisted that his writing was experimental, too. I didn't really get what he meant till he published his collected stories five years later. All good fiction is experimental, he was telling me, and don't get caught up in fads."
Now, a quarter of a century later, no one can accuse Boyle of getting caught up in fads. Each of his 17 books is a radical departure. From his first collection of short stories, Descent of Man (which announced a fascination with anthropology), to his most recent novel, The Inner Circle (about sex researcher Alfred Kinsey), Boyle has delighted readers with an ever-expanding carnival of tales. In September he will publish yet another collection, Tooth and Claw, in which stalking beasts figure large.
It would have been hard to predict this. Boyle started life as the child of working class parents in Peekskill, N.Y. His father had been raised in an orphanage; his mother had little education to speak of; there was a great deal of liquor in the house, but no books. He was a teenage punk, a "proto-hippy," not inclined toward classrooms and learning his Orwell from friends.
He applied to SUNY Potsdam as a music student, but once in, failed his saxophone audition, drifted toward literature courses and began to read avidly. Maybe it was his restlessness, maybe it was the times, but, as he has written, in college he "fell in with some people . . . and these people showed me how to cook heroin and shoot it in my veins, a skinny man like me with no fat to hide those swollen blue conduits to my heart." He wrote about beating addiction in "THE OD and Hepatitis Railroad or Bust," a story published in the North American Review. It was on the strength of that publication that he was admitted to graduate school at Iowa.
And it was perhaps on the strength of that drug-high initiation that Boyle has since been characterized as a "countercultural" writer, a zany iconoclast intent on shattering the literary establishment. Nothing could be further from the truth. An established professor at the University of Southern California for more than 25 years now, he has been an engine of production, a bastion of American letters, issuing volume after volume of what Cheever would have called "experimental" in the best American tradition. "Countercultural? I'm as diligent as they come!" Boyle shouts gleefully into the phone, "Name another writer who can say he has the same publisher, the same agent, the same job, the same wife and the same dog he started out with!"
Only the stories change.
-- Marie Arana