Saturday, September 21, 2013

TC Boyle's Double Dare

It was 1999 and I was strolling through a Barnes & Noble.  I'd recently read a cover story from the now-long defunct Book magazine about a swaggering verbal acrobat named T. Coraghessen Boyle.  A writer of short stories and novels alike, Boyle plunged his characters into dank and deep waters, with no redemptive rescue boats in sight.  He did so with wit and, unlike his more plain-spoken teachers Carver and Irving, infused his work with a panache of wordplay that required one to read with a dictionary in the other hand.

I came across Boyle's anthology of stories, a 700+ page opus that dared me to read it.  I did.  Every blessed page of it.  And I knew what I wanted to do.  I knew what kind of stories I wanted to tell.

Boyle struck me as an unusual beast.  He wore his ego on his sleeve, as many artists do, but it wasn't a musky snobbery donned in tweed coats with elbow patches.  He wasn't Tom Wolfe in the dapper white suit.  No, Boyle takes literature into a realm that borders on rock and roll.  He wants to take you on a ride, and trusts his ability to do so with unwavering confidence.

He refuses to believe any subject matter is off the table.  He'll write about places he's never been, things he's never done, because he trusts his abilities to learn about them and translate his second-hand experiences into first-hand narratives.   He also keenly grasps the human condition enough to expose our greatest vices and vulnerabilities, winking as he does.

Unlike some authors I've seen give readings, an often awkward and formal affair, Boyle treats his public appearances like performances, sharing his own personal stories, reading with an actor's instincts, and then engaging in a playful Q&A.   He spends time with his fans (as evidenced in the photo above, when he and I talked about music and New Orleans for longer than the folks in line behind me probably had patience for).  He likes the notion that a writer can have 'fans' and not just 'readers'.

Most of all, he writes for himself, but with the reader in mind, a delicate balance to be sure.  When accused of (God forbid!) writing to "entertain", here's what he had to say:  “I do feel that literature should be demystified. What I object to is what is happening in our era: literature is only something you get at school as an assignment. No one reads for fun, or to be subversive or to get turned on to something. It's just like doing math at school. I mean, how often do we sit down and do trigonometry for fun, to relax. I've thought about this, the domination of the literary arts by theory over the past 25 years -- which I detest -- and it's as if you have to be a critic to mediate between the author and the reader and that's utter crap. Literature can be great in all ways, but it's just entertainment like rock'n'roll or a film. It is entertainment. If it doesn't capture you on that level, as entertainment, movement of plot, then it doesn't work. Nothing else will come out of it. The beauty of the language, the characterisation, the structure, all that's irrelevant if you're not getting the reader on that level -- moving a story. If that's friendly to readers, I cop to it.”

Boyle proves, to me anyway, that one can write intelligently, masterfully, and still not live above us on some alabaster pedestal.   Unlike other gifted writers like McCarthy and Pynchon, he's not shy about sharing his work or promoting it, for that matter.  He loves what he does, and he loves knowing others love what he does.

Next week, a second anthology of TC Boyle's stories - 900+ pages this time - will be published by Viking.  It covers the breadth of his 21st century collections, along with 14 previously uncollected stories.   I look forward to diving into the new and revisiting the old.  I look forward to being humbled and called to action.  I look forward to being dared again.

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