Next best thing

One of the few constants in the postmodern ecstasy of communication is the idea that the moment you believe you have a finger on the pulse of a thing, that thing is history.

T.C. Boyle has been called both the poet and the prophet of our time—a tragic reference considering the abrupt anonymity that typically follows such hype. That is, once you’re recognized as a poet, a prophet, a whatever—the next Lennon, the newest Cobain, the sexiest man alive—you’re usually no longer relevant. Thank goodness Boyle’s publisher saved the finger/pulse cliché for the backflap of the dust jacket to After the Plague: and Other Stories.

Still, what can you say about someone who has published 14 books in 22 years (approximately half of his life so far), accomplishing that elusive balance between commercial success and literary recognition? Boyle’s stories have appeared in such radically diverse venues as the Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, GQ, Harper’s, the New Yorker, the Paris Review and Playboy. Plus he’s received two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and a Guggenheim. What can you say about someone (not dead) whose stories, in addition to being best sellers that have been translated into at least a dozen languages, have captured as many literary awards?

Not bad for a West Coast white boy.

Certainly these accomplishments are enough to escape accusations that the work is too accessible, too easy, too profitable to be truly great. I’m not really sure what the criteria are for contemporary “literature with a capital ‘L.’” I’m not certain that they really matter that much to most readers.

What makes Boyle a great writer is the way he creates alternate reality from familiar scraps of life and subtly compels readers (tossing around phrases like “a tsunami of bougainvillea”) to experience such reality, while ignoring the intrusion of paper and ink.

Seriously, he didn’t pick up his third O. Henry for simply rehashing the real-life horror of dumpster infanticide in this book’s “The Love of My Life.” Instead the story questions the self-destructive nature of first-love by interweaving a backdrop of teen slasher movies. Why else would two academically overachieving adolescents eschew the potential ecstasy of five days of oral sex in favor of risking their future on unprotected coitus?

Poisoned passion and unrequited love are recurring themes in After the Plague: and Other Stories. Beneath their John-Wayne-machismo and use of physical force, the heroes of “Termination Dust,” “Mexico” and “The Underground Gardens” invite readers to explore benevolent impulses in terms of self-gratification, while “Killing Babies,” “Peep Hall” and “Death of the Cool” revisit the idea that love stinks with less violence and a more urgent examination of the eroticism of rejection. These stories don’t attempt to cure love’s pernicious elements as much as they showcase its mystery. It’s fairly obvious that the anti-hero of “She Wasn’t Soft” has no idea why he does what he does and Boyle makes no effort to explain it.

Drawing from a different slice of life, Boyle’s exceptional artistry allows a reticent uneasiness about the aging process seep through the surface of stories like “Rust” and “My Widow.”

Some think Boyle the next Twain or Hemingway, others consider him the next Stephen King or Danielle Steele. Neither assessment should keep anyone from the incredible experience of reading the compelling fiction in the pieces that make up T.C. Boyle’s After the Plague: and Other Stories.