The raffish T.C. Boyle has always had an easy, rock-and-roll-outsider appeal as a spinner of freewheeling tall tales with an experimentalist twist — brain candy for the creative-writing set. With this gargantuan collection, “T.C. Boyle Stories II” (Viking, $45), which follows its predecessor by 15 years, his publisher makes an overt claim for him as one of our preeminent literary voices. Is the deluxe treatment merited? Two weeks spent in the company of these stories gives the impression of abundant energy and talent but also the lingering aftertaste of the over-prolific. A certain recurrence of general narrative shape indicates a telling reliance on formula: Colorful loser sees sexually appealing female, hatches ploy; misfire of ploy, unexpected result, moment of revelation; stir, repeat. Boyle is actually at his strongest and most moving when he veers outside his surfer/stoner ambit. “Wild Child” is an extended and masterful re-imagination of the story of Victor, the famous feral child captured in the French countryside in 1800. He was “as wild and forlorn as the first upright creature created by God in His own image” and a living experiment in testing Enlightenment ideas of identity and education. “A Death in Kitchawank” — one of 14 stories appearing in book form for the first time — is likewise a marvelously compressed cycle-of-life story that ends in muted tones of elegy and incantation. “It will all be lost,” thinks the protagonist, Miriam, drifting into reverie, “everything we make, everything we love, everything we are.”
Boyle’s circus act stands in distinct contrast to Russell Banks’s A Permanent Member of the Family (Ecco, $25.99). His stories have a burnished sheen that only gradually gives way to something darker and more ominous. Banks’s tales masterfully build tension via an accumulation of carefully selected details, often ending as abruptly and resonantly as a struck gong. They have space in them for mystery, for the blooming of uncertainty and doubt; Banks relies on the veteran storyteller’s trick of giving readers slightly less than they need to know. There’s not a dud in this bunch, and two of them — “Searching for Veronica” and “The Green Door” — are so good, so profound and sneakily disturbing, that they almost took the top of my head off. The former takes the form of a haunting barroom soliloquy, whose narrator says, “It’s like I’m having a bad dream, and I want to wake up from it, but I’m afraid that when I do, the reality will be worse than the dream.” That sense of psychic displacement runs like a fever through the book.
“Many people have written about suburbia,” John Updike once declared, but only John Cheever “saw in its cocktail parties and swimming pools the shimmer of dissolving dreams.” These words come to my mind whenever I bump up against Tom Perrotta, who, like Cheever, has made his name chronicling the melancholic dog-ends of American domestic life. The Cheeverian “shimmer,” alas, glows only intermittently in Nine Inches (St. Martin’s, $25.99). Several of these stories feel dashed-off, little more than hastily sketched vignettes, and Perrotta’s prose runs heavily to cliche: a couple is relieved “to throw in the towel”; a sympathetic teacher wants “to hug each and every one” of her students. Perrotta’s best asset is his great, big heart: You find yourself rooting for vulnerable antiheroes and heroines such as the hapless doctor in “One-Four-Five” or the lovelorn teacher in “The All-Night Party” to find some modicum of happiness. More often, though, they end up like the couple in “Kiddie Pool,” who, hoping for a better life, find that “it was as if both of them had woken up on the same gray morning and realized the same thing — it was too late. They’d turned a corner. Their lives were their lives. Nothing was going to change.” Happy holidays, everyone.
Lindgren is a writer and musician who lives in New York City.