TOOTH AND CLAW
By T.C. Boyle
Viking. 284 pp. $25.95
Readers I meet in different parts of the world invariably tell me they love short stories, but publishers don't, because they know most collections of shorts are not money-makers. Certainly there are too many that should never have been published -- flaccid, inept stories peopled with dry-cleaned characters. But T.C. Boyle, a virtuoso craftsman, is one of the reasons readers do love short stories, and Tooth and Claw will give devotees of the form much pleasure and an occasional frisson.
Inside Tooth and Claw are Boyle's trademark taut writing, immediate intimacy, vivid language, and meaty words and phrases including "liver muggies," "foude" and "testudineous." Cherish the writer who stretches your mind a little. These characters speak and tell their stories in the slouchy dialogue we all use, their girlfriends throw them out, they confront one another, break up and throw up, they shriek, their flesh prickles, they slip, sink, fall, they brush lips with death, but somehow most escape the deep kiss.
Among Boyle's gifts are his roaring intelligence and a curiosity that has led him over the years to develop a masterly range of subjects and locales. In these 14 previously published selections, he convincingly carries the reader to Tierra del Fuego beneath the hole in the ozone layer, to the muddy road from Massachusetts to New York in 1702, to the Siberian forest, to India, to the glass booth of a greasy radio station, to the moral masquerade of a model community like Disney's Celebration, to suburban New York, to the windy Isle of Unst in the Shetlands, to dumpsters and isolated cottages.
There are many fools in these stories and many bars, some wretched, some wonderful, such as the bar at Jimmy's Steak House: "Inside, it was like another world, like a history lesson, with jars of pickled eggs and Polish sausage lined up behind the bar, a display of campaign buttons from the forties and fifties -- I Like Ike -- and a fireplace, a real fireplace, split oak sending up fantails of sparks against a background of blackened brick. The air smelled sweet -- it wasn't a confectionary sweetness or the false scent of air freshener either, but the smell of wood and wood smoke, pipe tobacco, booze." Casual conversations over drinks grow like cultures in Petri dishes into bizarre and dangerous relationships.
And there are animals throughout. In "Dogology," a woman scientist begins to live with the neighborhood dogs despite the neighbors' revulsion; Gulpy Gator takes a victim (this reader thought it was the wrong victim) in the man-made Floridian Allagash Lake; a lecture on eels and bears precedes "The Swift Passage of the Animals"; and a vicious serval cat in the title story sexually excites a young woman who, true to form, dumps the narrator.
In "Swept Away," a big lump of a man and an American photographer come together at the edge of the cliffy island of Unst in a strange tangle of love, culture, sex and misunderstanding. It is illustrative of Boyle's ability to build a moving and desperate story in a few pages. The wind surges through the piece, and the descriptions of its wild power lead the reader from amusement and interest to the thrill of authenticity. Boyle balances tragedy and comedy in a small compass with great skill.
"The Doubtfulness of Water" is an unusual story -- if it is a story. A 35-year-old woman in 1702 New England undertakes an autumn journey from Massachusetts to New York to tell another woman something of importance; we are never sure just what. She goes alone, hiring men (most of them rude and uncaring) to escort her. Her commentary is tart and acerbic. She has a terrible fear of water, yet again and again she has to cross streams and rivers on horseback, by rickety bridge or fragile boat. The lodgings are most often frightful, but she perseveres and eventually arrives at her destination. We're relieved when she reaches New York and come to feel we have traversed the rough old New England post road with her.
Every reader will have his or her own favorites, but I also liked "Here Comes," a raunchy and sodden account of a man kicked out of his girlfriend's place and starting to turn into a bum. (Sometimes that is all it takes in Boyle's stories.) I was reminded of Greg Brown's "Just a Bum," which voices a fear that lurks deep inside some men that they might lose everything, all their "stuff," and others will see them standing on the corner "with a nine-day beard and bright red eyes." Something of that fear is caught in this story: that comfort, security, success can flash away in half an hour, never to be regained.
"All the Wrecks I've Crawled Out Of," with its don't-care sex, drugs, booze and Boyle-style muddy lake, also hints at lurking bumhood for the miserable protagonist. And "Jubilation" is alight with burning irony (even a little over the top). Can there really be narrow fools who buy into corny, contrived money-sucking communities like this, clinging to their imagined status-prize Golfpark Drives, wrap-around porches and Casual Contempos?
Yes, there can, and thank heaven T.C. Boyle has his glittering eye on them. *
Annie Proulx is the author, most recently, of "Bad Dirt."