The writer’s writer
A fan’s notes on the enduring storytelling of T.C. Boyle
I will continue to chase the meaning I need to build in my own life.
T.C. Boyle is sitting backstage at the cavernous Crest Theatre in Sacramento, hunched in front of a yard-high stack of his books, signing autographs with a quick and practiced scrawl. He’s a slight man in his 50s, youthful-looking despite the fact that his reddish hair is thinning, looking more spun on his head than grown there, rather like cotton candy.
I don’t want to disturb him because he is busy signing books and there are only a few moments before he will be going onstage to read his work and regale an audience with tales of the writing life. Besides, I tell him, I really don’t know what sort of story I want to write.
“That’s how I work, too,” he says. “I never know where a story is going when I begin one.”
It is a most gracious thing for him to have said, putting us in the same boat even though his work and reputation put him on the top deck while most freelancers tend to be stowaways making the voyage in the bowels of the ship.
Out front, his audience is filtering in. Boyle attracts a lot of skinny people. He once described himself as a “terminally skinny proto-hippie,” and that description still holds though his years in the classrooms of the University of Southern California have also given him a distinctly professorial air. The vestigial hippie is there, too, in the metal cuff adorning his ear, or in the 30 or 40 thin leather bands that run from his wrist about six inches up his arm.
“They’re tribal,” he explains.
“The Boyle tribe.”
More than 800 people turn up on a midweek evening to be entertained by a writer who insists that the essence of art is entertainment, an axiom he is about to put into play, reading two of his stories that hold the audience spellbound. Seeing him on that stage, it is difficult not to think of Mark Twain doing a similar thing a little over a hundred years ago, but Twain did it before television, before iPods and the Internet.Still, Boyle manages to take a 21st-century audience back into the heart of storytelling, creating rapt attention the old-fashioned way—with words alone.
And those words are pretty damned good. Here’s one of his opening paragraphs, from a story about a father and daughter attending an anti-drug presentation at her school:
Abscissa, ordinate, isosceles, Carboniferous, Mesozoic, holothurian: the terms come back to him in a rush of disinterred syllables, a forgotten language conjured by the sudden sharp smell of chalk dust and blackboards. It happens all the time. All he has to do is glance at the bicycle rack out front or the flag snapping crisply atop the gleaming aluminum pole, and the memories begin to wash over him, a typhoon of faces and places and names, Ilona Sharrow and Richie Davidson, Manifest Destiny, Heddy Grieves, the Sea of Tranquility and the three longest rivers in Russia. He takes his daughter’s hand and shuffles toward the glowing auditorium, already choked up.Enumerating all that is good in that paragraph would require far more words than the paragraph contains, but note, for instance, the brilliance of the word “disinterred” as an adjective accompanying “syllables.” Note the accretion of observed detail, and how spot-on that detail is—the sight and sound of the flag, the smell of the chalk dust and the mixture of student names and long-lost lessons combining to not only set the scene, but to introduce the main character, the loving father who exhibits the kind of innocent hypocrisy about drug use most any parent would recognize. Note how much is being done, and in how few words.
Boyle defines what he does this way: “I meditate on something, then write something so you can meditate on it, too.”
Quoting him out of context risks making him sound pompous, which would be a serious misrepresentation. He is impish in his sense of humor, both in his work and in his repartee. When he is asked, for instance, about whether there is any correlation between a writer’s appearance and a writer’s work, he says: “Yes, absolutely. I have but a very small talent. Great physical beauty is what has gotten me to the top.”
He’s prolific, Boyle is, turning out short fiction and novels steadily since his first book of stories, The Descent of Man, appeared in 1979. His first novel—Water Music— was published in 1981. That first novel remains his favorite, but there have been 16 more books since then, critical successes all, and most of them strong sellers, too, placing Boyle at that most happy place for writers to be, on the corner of Art Street and Commerce Boulevard, a location where few writers have ever managed to set up shop.He reads from a story called “Chicxulub,” from his recent collection, Tooth and Claw. It is a perfect story, driving to its conclusion without a single wasted word, detail, gesture or line of dialogue. At an earlier reading, a woman in the audience sobbed audibly through the entire story. Such is its power, as good a story as can be found, a story Chekov and Joyce would know.
A case can be made that T.C. Boyle is the greatest serious writer of his generation. The bounty and the variety of the work he’s produced over the past quarter century is remarkable by any measure, and as a chronicle of the times and of the concerns of those times, Boyle’s ouevre is unmet and unmatched by anyone writing these days. And that likely won’t change with the release of his latest novel, Talk Talk, a thriller about a deaf woman and her boyfriend who take a road trip in search of the thief who stole her identity. The book, which was released in early July, was generating quite a stir months before publication.
A case can also be made that this is a nation that values serious writers even less than it once did, and it has never treated its writers particularly well. Greatness is a rare thing at any time, and perhaps even more rare than usual in a time when the White House is inhabited by an intellectual pygmy and our culture proclaims any rapper who can rhyme “mo'” with “'ho” to be an “artist.”
Tortilla Curtain, Boyle’s novel depicting the parallel lives of a wealthy Southern Californian and an impoverished Mexican living in the canyon below him, might have commanded the kind of attention that Grapes of Wrath commanded in the late 1930s, if we were a culture that still valued the experience of serious literary work.Across town from the Crest Theatre, my daughter teaches seventh-graders. The walls of her classroom are decorated with poems her students have written about who they are. One boy, Daniel Mosby, writes: “I am a curious guy who likes to read. / I wonder what happens next in each book. / I hear the faint sounds of the books. / I see the pictures in my head. / I want to keep reading. / I am a curious guy who likes to read. / I pretend I am in the books. / I feel the pain and happiness of the characters. / I touch the hand of the people. / I worry about the danger in these books. / I cry for the suffering of the characters.”
Readers like that young boy will always deserve great writers, people like T.C. Boyle who use words on the page to chase the meaning we all seek.