culturevulture.net – review

By T. Coraghessan Boyle

This book was written after its writer, Thomas John Boyle, became T. Coraghessan Boyle, but before he morphed into merely T.C. Boyle. Some online sites suggest that Coraghessan was a middle name made up because it was ‘sexier’ than mere John, or T.J., while others claim it as his second middle name from birth. I don’t know which is true, but the first option seems far more in line with the egoistic ravings of this man, not to mention the self-consciously bad boy poses he strikes in the photos of himself. Regardless of his ultimate poseur nature, however, Boyle is a bad writer- very bad.

That said, he is not bad in the way writers such as Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, or Rick Moody are, even though that is what I expected from others’ claims, and the fact that he has blurbed for these writers before. Whereas they are relentlessly hipster, and spew formless rants with pop cultural allusions that are void of character development and narrative arc, Boyle is, well, there’s no easy way to say this, but mind-numbingly conventional. Yes, he’s bad, and mostly because he’s dull, dull, dull. But, unlike the others he has shown he can, at least, control a narrative line. What he lacks, if this book is used as evidence, is any sense of anything to tell. A back cover blurb from the San Francisco Chronicle declares Boyle’s ‘inexhaustible curiosity and his willingness to try anything once are here in abundance.’ By this I can only discern the blurbist meant that he starts out with odd premises. This is true. But, Boyle does absolutely nothing with those premises, and simply having weird occurrences pop up does not make a thing funny, merely odd, and if disconnected to the narrative start and trope, very contrived. But, again, at least it is a narrative. His characters, however, are all cardboard cutouts. Not the sort that are facile flicks of the wrist, as in the deadly trio’s, but truly cardboard characters, whose minutia are dully explored for pages before Boyle decides that something weird, and what he deems ‘wonderful’, will happen.

I tend to view Boyle, who’s from the generation before the noxious threesome, as an intermediate form of the devolution of bad writing that resulted in the preening tercet. He is so dull, and straightforward, as well unadventurous that I was astonished. Worst of all, he indulges unredeemed clichés to an extent that may even surpass the others. Here is the end of the last tale in the book, whose very title is a cliché, Sitting On Top Of The World:

Later, when the tower floated out over the storm and the coals glowed in the stove and the darkness settled in around her like a blanket, she disconnected the radio and put her knife away in the drawer where it belonged. Then she propped herself in the corner of the bed, way out over the edge of the abyss, and watched his fire raging in the cold heart of the night. He would be back, she knew that now, and she would be ready for him.

Now, Boyle apologists might argue that he was ironically trying to undermine the nine underlined clichés in the end paragraph, but there is no evidence for that, since the tale is not a humorous one, but involves loneliness in the wilderness. It follows a woman who lives and works in a ranger’s lookout tower, watching for fires, whose reactions to a stranger’s visit sets the stage for the denouement. Yet, simply put, no writing philosophy, nor –ism, can redeem this level of abominable writing, and there is no irony in its usage in the story line, for clichés abound within the tale, as well. In short, Boyle is utterly clueless as to their being clichés, and clichés are the easiest thing to recognize and purge in bad writing for they are the least subjective example of poor writing, for they are mere numerical recurrences of words, phrases, and ideas, with nothing to rehabilitate them. And this rings through every word of this tale- from its very title to its last paragraph.

But, this is no aberration. Here’s the end to Filthy With Things:

Julian doesn’t know how long he stands there, in the middle of that barren room in the silence of that big empty house, holding Marsha, holding his wife, but when he shuts his eyes he sees only the sterile deeps of space, the remotest regions beyond even the reach of light. And he knows this: it is cold out there, inhospitable, alien. There’s nothing there, nothing contained in nothing. Nothing at all.

Ten clichés in a slightly shorter paragraph- this should be unbelievable. But it is not unusual for Boyle, who literally ends two other tales with these phrases: ‘opened his arms to receive her’ and ‘as if my life depended on it’. And there are several other tales with even worse clichés that riddle the penultimate sentences, as all the tales end poorly, on way or another (got ya, T.C.!). Where the hell are the editors? And, again, there is nothing leading up to this that undermines it, nor makes these ends ironical, for this is the texture of Boyle’s very writing, from beginning to end. It is utterly astonishing that such poor sentences and paragraphs abound. It would be one thing if there was even a hint of redemption offered by the claimed wacky and humorous antics ascribed to the man’s prose, but there are not. This tale, as example, is about yuppie packrats who need to seek professional help, lest be swamped in under the weight of their junk. Wow, that sounds promising, eh? Yet, in all seriousness, a good or great writer, can make the even most absurd situation fraught with depth and emotion- how about a guy who wakes up to discover he’s a large roach?

And, of course, Boyle declaims Franz Kafka as one of his ‘major’ influences. It never ceases to amaze me, in poetry or prose, how bad writers try to attach themselves to great writers they share not a whit in common with. Ok, so Boyle tries to be wacky- but he does it to try to be wacky. Kafka had real purpose to his work- whether as mere satire or deeper social commentary. Reread the above selections and show me where anything higher can be claimed. And there is not even any dazzling wordplay- no great music, alliteration, nor descriptions, nor metaphors. One gets the feeling that Boyle is just a naturally bad writer, unlike the willfully bad Moody, Eggers, and Wallace. That is that Boyle doesn’t even bother to try, and he seems to never revise tales, as most of them read like first drafts for a better writer- long on ideas, but short on skillful execution. Which bespeaks more, in a negative light, is debatable.

Other tales include the title tale, Without A Hero, in which a divorced southern California swinger tries to score with a Russian scam artist who falls into prostitution, because he refuses to marry her after he finds out he feels inferior to her. In Beat, a kid listens to Bing Crosby records with Jack Kerouac on a Christmas in the 1950s. Nothing happens, but the piece lets us know that Boyle is hipster-qualified. In Big Game a nouveau riche real estate couple set up their own hunting preserve, with imported big game just to be shot, near Bakersfield, California. Supposedly a satire of a Hemingway tale, it nonetheless fails for its own slight being. Its supposed ecological theme rings truer in Hopes Rise, in which two science minded folk lament the death of frogs as herald of an ecological disaster, and economic ruin, then fuck in a muddy frog pond, in a bad Romance scene that does nothing to satirize the characters, merely show them as repulsive. Yet, I’ve read similarly themed tales from Barry Lopez, whose far superior skill, actually develops characters, and deeper themes, even if poking fun at the subject. Another supposed Hemingway spoof is The 100 Faces Of Death, Vol. IV, which merely is a recitation of the classic snuff film anthologies of the 1970s, with nothing new added. Notice, too, how poorly and tritely named Boyle’s tales are. How about Carnal Knowledge, where a moron is suckered into crime by his libido, and abeautiful vegan ecoterrorist. His assignment: liberate the prisoners of a turkey farm. In Acts Of God an old married couple endure a hurricane. The husband detests the wife, and when separated he wishes her dead, only to find out she has survived, if not their house. The ending actually indulges a cliché it was set up to undermine. That, and the fact that the twenty page plus story should have been no more than two or three pages, as it is larded with extraneous details that do nothing to serve the narrative, and well- you have a classic T.C. Boyle tale. Oh, wait, this was T. Coraghessan Boyle who wrote this. Bad on me.

About the only tale, of the book’s fifteen, that has any success is Top Of The Food Chain- a thankfully brief, but one dimensional, monologue where a bureaucrat is called before a committee investigating DDT’s effect in Borneo. It ends with a description of housecats being parachuted into the jungle that is a straight ripoff of a classic premise from an episode of the TV show WKRP In Cincinnati, involving ‘flying turkeys’. Needless to say, though, even this best of Boyle does not stir the chuckles that the TV episode did.

There simply is little worse than a claimed humorist who lacks humor, yet this is Boyle. His satire, such as it is, is slight, forced, and dull- all the things satire should never be to be successful. Yet, he is worse, for he lacks the discipline to even purge his dull A to B to C work of clichés. And he has a need to excessively describe things, rather than let simplicity, or a savvy reader, discern an emotion. Too many of his sentences have pedestrian details, or unnecessary metaphors or modifiers, such as this typical example from the titular tale (page 76):

‘I couldn’t have been more stunned if she’d asked me who played third base for the Dodgers.

‘What?” This comes out of nowhere, and does not reflect the character’s established speaking patterns- it is simply the intrusion of an insecure writer feeling a need to force description and/or poesy into a tale. This results in Boyle’s tales being much longer than they should be. He has no sense of concision, in his writing- something that a poet almost must have to succeed. No, I take that back- he did cut his own name down. Perhaps, for his next book he’ll simply be TCB, although I hope he’ll finally, artistically, take that acronym ‘to heart’. Shiver.