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Much of the appeal of T. Coraghessan Boyle’s novels and stories is in his creation of outrageous characters, bizarre situations, and deliberately inflated comparisons. His fiction is widely praised for its black comedy, incongruous mixture of the mundane and the surreal, wildly inventive and intricate plots, manic energy, and dazzling wordplay.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
”A Pretty Good Gig”
Born Thomas John Boyle on December 2, 1948, in Peekskill, New York, the grandson of Irish immigrants, Boyle has suggested that the mad, language-obsessed part of him derives from his Irish ancestry. At seventeen he changed his middle name to Coraghessan (pronounced “kuh-RAGG-issun”), a name from his mother’s side of the family. His father, a school bus driver, and his mother, a secretary, both died of complications from alcoholism before Boyle was thirty. Although his family did not have much money, Boyle was encouraged to obtain a good education. By his own report his youth was spent ”hanging out” and taking a lot of drugs.
Boyle began writing in college with an absurdist one-act play about a young boy eaten by an alligator—except for his foot, to which his family builds a shrine in the living room. When the professor and class laughed and applauded, Boyle concluded writing was ”a pretty good gig.” After graduating from the State University of New York at Potsdam in 1968, Boyle taught high-school English for several years to keep from being drafted into the Vietnam War. In the fall of 1972, he published ”The OD & Hepatitis RR or Bust” in The North American Review and, primarily on the basis of that story, was admitted into the University of Iowa Workshop.
Once at the University of Iowa he began taking literature courses as well as creative-writing courses, earning his M.F.A. in 1974. He became a model student; in his words, ”I grew up. Instead of cutting classes, I sat in the front row and took notes.” This transformation occurred because he felt he had found what he was meant to do: for all his irreverence and outrageousness, Boyle is absolutely serious about his writing. He completed his Ph.D. in nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century British literature in 1977 but opted for a creative dissertation; the collection of short stories Boyle wrote for his dissertation was later revised and published as Descent of Man (1979), a collection that earned Boyle an immediate reputation for his off-beat humor and quirky characters.
An Active and Topical Writer
Since 1977 Boyle has been a professor at the University of Southern California, where he founded a creative writing program. He has also been a very active writer since his first publication in 1979, producing eleven novels and eight short-story collections, many of which have taken as themes some of the dominant trends or important issues of the day. Boyle lampooned the fitness craze of the 1980s in The Road to Wellville (1993) and satirized extremist environmental activists in A Friend of the Earth (2000). He tackled the question of illegal immigration, a hot topic during the 1980s, in both East is East (1990) and The Tortilla Curtain (1995). More recently, in Talk Talk (2006), he explored the consequences of identity theft, a major concern of the Information Age.
Works in Literary Context
A widely praised American comic short story writer and novelist, Boyle has been compared to such varied authors as Kingsley Amis, Evelyn Waugh, Thomas Berger, Tom Robbins, Roy Blount, Thomas Pynchon, John Barth and Mark Twain. What distinguishes Boyle from other con temporary American authors, writes Michael Adams in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook 1986, is that no others ”write about the diverse subjects he does in the way he does.” Chiefly known for his irreverent and satiric humor, Boyle is often described as an energetic, clever writer who is not afraid to take risks in plot and style.
Surrealism Set in History
Boyle’s novels are known for their surrealistic and unexpected plot twists, the use of violence and sexuality, and the inability of men and women to communicate. Many of his novels involve historical events and situations placed in history, though Boyle rarely attempts to make the reader forget he is reading a novel rather than experiencing a true reflection of history.
His first novel, Water Music (1981)—which inter twines the stories of a fictional rogue and Mungo Park, a Scottish explorer who led expeditions to Africa in 1795 and 1805—relies on melodramatic devices, including stupendous cliffhangers, complicated coincidences, and even miraculous resurrections, all reminiscent of similar delights in the works of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century novelists from Henry Fielding to Dickens. In an unapologetic “Apologia” Boyle announces that he has been deliberately anachronistic, inventing language and terminology and reshaping historical facts ”with full and clear conscience.” In addition to beginning Boyle’s trend of placing novels in historical context, Water Music offers what became hallmarks of Boyle’s works, from deliciously gory descriptions to verbal acrobatics, delivered in a mixture of polysyllabic diction and current colloquialisms.
World’s End (1987), Boyle’s most ambitious and complicated novel, traces the intertwined fates of three families living in Peterskill, a Hudson Valley community similar to Boyle’s own hometown, Peekskill, New York. With similar patterns of action and emotions occurring in both the seventeenth and twentieth centuries, the novel depicts the conflicts between the families and their descendants. Boyle’s 2003 novel, Drop City, brings together in 1970 two exemplars of the American spirit— California hippie communards and tough individualist loners trying to live off the land in Alaska. Neither completely satirical nor nostalgic, Drop City is a convincing evocation of a crucial period of American history and of perennial American types of dreamers.
Satirizing Popular Culture
Boyle also uses his historical settings to engage in satire that lampoons various aspects of modern popular culture. For instance, Boyle uses The Road to Wellville (1993), set in 1907 and 1908, as a vehicle for an oblique attack on some dominant modern idiocies such as ridiculous self-improvement plans and quack health schemes. The novel takes place in Battle Creek, Michigan, at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, where the director, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, a believer in colonic irrigation, vegetarian biologic living, and sexual abstinence, employs ”cures” that feature a hideous diet of nut butters, grapes, milk, and mysterious unpleasant substances, plus multiple daily enemas and special baths during which an electric current moves through a patient’s body while his hands and feet are placed in water.
Boyle’s sixth novel, The Tortilla Curtain (1995), depicts the intersecting lives of two couples living in Topanga Canyon, Los Angeles: Delaney Mossbacher, a liberal nature writer and self-styled pilgrim, and his wife, Kyra, a hotshot real estate saleswoman; and Candido Rincon, an undocumented Mexican pursuing the American dream of a better life while living literally hand to mouth in the canyon with his young, pregnant wife, America. The Rincons live a life of hunger, intimidation, and victimization while the Mossbachers’ primary social concerns are recycling and nature preservation.
Works in Critical Context
Throughout his career, Boyle has received high praise for his energetic writing, imaginative plots, and accurate recreation of accents and speech patterns. At the same time, some critics contend his works are superficial and lack depth. In The New York Times Book Review, Michiko Kakutani wrote that Boyle ”has emerged as one of the most inventive and verbally exuberant writers of his generation.” Likewise, Jay Tolson wrote in the Washington Post Book World that Boyle ”pulls his most implausible inventions with wit, a perfect sense of timing, and his considerable linguistic gifts. He treasures the apt word . . . and his ear for cockney, brogue, pidgin English and other dialects is sure.” Eva Hoffman wrote in the New York Times that Boyle failed to develop the characters in Bud ding Prospects and wrote as if he were ”dancing on the edges of language, afraid that if he slowed down for a minute, he might fall into a vacuum.” Tolson pointed to a tiresome theme that recurs in Boyle’s works: ”the point [Boyle] relentlessly presses is that man is a foolish creature and that everything ends with death, though some survive longer than others.”
Despite the criticism, however, most of Boyle’s reviewers acknowledge that the author is a skillful humorist. Hoffman wrote, ”Boyle possesses a rare and redeeming virtue—he can be consistently, effortlessly, intelligently funny.” Boyle has been hailed as one of the most imaginative contemporary American novelists, and his work enjoys wide popularity. Even his harshest critics, such as Kakutani, concede that ”When it comes to pitch-black humor, Grand Guignol slapstick and linguistic acrobatics, T. Coraghessan Boyle is a master of his domain.”
Many of Boyle’s works have been received with a mixture of praise and criticism. Reviews of Boyle’s first novel, Water Music (1981), set this pat tern. In the Library Journal, Grove Kroger commented that ”Boyle’s invention flags at the end, and the explorer himself remains oddly insubstantial” but he also claimed that Ned Rise was ”one of contemporary fiction’s most challenging creations” as a character. Alan Friedman in The New York Times Book Review asserted, ”Hardly ever does the novel allow the reader to enter the world it creates. When … characters suffer (and, poor dears, how they suffer!) their sufferings seem for the most part contrived to elicit crocodile tears.”
World’s End (1987), Boyle’s most ambitious and complicated novel, won the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction in 1988. Much of the response to World’s End was positive; for example, in The New York Times Book Review, Benjamin DeMott praised the novel for providing ”space for moral and emotional as well as esthetic reality, producing a narrative in which passion, need and belief breathe with striking force and freedom.” Not all of the critical reception to World’s End was positive, however. In a review in The New York Times,
Michiko Kakutani complained that ”there’s something mechanical and cumbersome about Mr. Boyle’s orchestration of time past and time present” and that the proliferation of characters is such ”that we never really get a chance to know them as recognizable individuals.”
- Donadieu, Marc V. American picaresque the early novels of T. Coraghessan Boyle. Dissertation: University of Louisiana at Lafayette, 2000.
- D’Haen, Theo. ”The Return of History and the Minorization of New York: T. Coraghessan Boyle and Richard Russo.” Revue Erangaise d’Etudes Americaines (1994): 393-403.
- Friend, Tad. ”Rolling Boyle.” New York Times Magazine (December 9, 1990): 50-68.
- Vaid, Krishna Baldev. ”Franz Kafka Writes to T. Coraghessan Boyle.” Michigan Quarterly Review (Summer 1996): 533-547.
- All About T. Coraghessan Boyle. Accessed September 5, 2008, from http://www.tcboyle.net/sandye.html. Last updated on May 14, 2001.
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