Nice guys invariably finish last, in T.C. Boyle's relentless world

September 18, 2005|By Clare McHugh | Clare McHugh,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SHORT STORIES

Tooth and Claw and Other Stories

By T.C. Boyle. Viking Books. 284 pages.

Like a person you admire but don't really enjoy spending time with, this new collection of short stories from the masterful T.C. Boyle is impressive but not truly engaging.

While he creates memorable characters, terrific momentum and stinging dialogue in each story, there's a mournful quality to these tales, and the protagonists (inevitably male) fail in a myriad of different ways. The details vary, but the trajectory remains the same and, after awhile, the defeats become wearisome. This followup to The Inner Circle, his 2004 novel about Alfred Kinsey, will appeal to true fans, but won't gather him legions of new ones.

As can be gleaned from the title, Boyle concerns himself here with how nature intrudes on the fates of men. So prodigious is his range, and subtle his understanding of the many ways that foolish males will try to take on powers greater than themselves, Boyle can place his stories in a multitude of settings but still come to same conclusion.

In "The Swift Passage of the Animals," a young man wants to consummate his romance with a woman he has recently met, taking her away to Big Timber Lodge in the Southern Sierras. But he cuts a few corners in the planning of the trip, leaving behind chains for his tires, ignoring a weather advisory, and opting for a shortcut rather than the main road, only to get his car stuck in a blizzard. The couple manage to hike out to safety, but not until Zach is humiliated in all his efforts. The scene at the lodge when they finally arrive is classic Boyle. Other men surround the woman he has brought, to marvel that someone as pretty and intelligent as she could have been with him. As the crowd watches, the relationship evaporates, and she scorns him in a very cutting way.

Over and over in these stories, a man finds that his ideas, his choices and his strivings betray him. In "Jubilation," a middle-aged New Yorker, recently divorced after his wife left him and having sold his company, seeks a new life in a planned community in Florida owned by the Disney-like Contash Corp. The whole story is a defense of his dream, which is under siege from truculent gun-toting neighbors, falling property values and alligators populating the lake where residents are supposed to be able to go boating safely. The gruesome truth comes through in all the details he reports, but our narrator is unable to admit that he's been conned and abused, or even that a tragedy he's part of is a horrible, grotesque event. His self-image doesn't allow for that.

In Boyle's universe, even a man with noble purposes will not be rewarded. Robbie Baikie is a humble Scottish farmer whose passion for an American scientist ultimately comes to nothing when she rejects his offer of marriage in "Swept Away." But Robbie remains devoted, and battling a fierce storm of mythic proportions, sets out to save his beloved's life on a dark and fearsome night. Needless to say, it doesn't happen and Boyle shows us his hero's ultimate end: pathetically sitting at the corner of the bar, dwelling on his lost love.

With the modern world full of traps for men to fall into, burdened as they are with their dreams of glory, and their need for love and admiration, Boyle has no shortage of subjects. But these stories are better savored individually, in the magazines like The New Yorker, GQ, and Harper's, where they first appeared. Each is powerful - together they are somewhat diminished, like the lives that they so carefully chronicle.

Clare McHugh is an editor at Time Inc.

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