Wednesday, October 18, 2023

T.C. Boyle's short stories are a great entry point to his prolific and powerful body of literary work

As someone who’s always kept an eye on the activities of the University of Iowa’s Iowa Writer’s Workshop program - and I almost attended grad school there because of its reputation, although I got into the slightly-less-prestigious journalism school - I think T.C Boyle is one of the program’s brightest stars. (With an opening sentence like that, no wonder they accepted me for journalism and not writing!)

Boyle famously had terrible grades but still got in based on the short story he submitted in the application process. He is known for having an eclectic, sometimes experimental, and sometimes satirical style and frequently writes about big issues like climate change, immigration, and the American experience, but always in non-preachy ways through the lenses of interesting characters. 

I really enjoyed the two novels I’ve read of Boyle's: Drop City about communal hippies in California and Alaska and Outside Looking In about a fictionalized version of Timothy Leary and the dawn of LSD invention and use. Other novels on my "to read" list include Talk to Me, The Tortilla Curtain, The Road to Wellville, and The Women. But for now, I wanted to start sampling his latest and also two of his most revered short stories - a modest project because he is a prolific short-story writer.

"The Overcoat II" (1982): This is a brilliant retelling of Nikolia Gogol's "The Overcoat," originally set in the 19th century and updated by Boyle to the 1980s Soviet Union. It's an absolute classic and tells the tale of Akaky, a factory worker who holds fast to the strict Soviet laws of labor, toiling in a cramped apartment, working slavishly at a factory, waiting in long lines for rations, and freezing night and day in his tattered Soviet-made overcoat. After getting ruthlessly mocked and derided at work for following Soviet rule, he one day decides to buy an expensive new coat and is then invited by a co-worker to a lavish party. He surprisingly enjoys the evening greatly, but then his coat is stolen from him as he walks home afterwards. He files a police report and they are soon able to locate the coat. But there is a problem when they discover the coat is labelled as "made in Hong Kong." The police inspector grills him for several hours about how he got it and then keeps it in police custody. Akaky is let go and walks home with no coat, only to get a cold that soon kills him. At the end of the story, the police inspector gets Akaky's overcoat out of the closet and wears it down the street, "proud and triumphant," with many people mistaking him for a top-level Soviet leaderr. 5 out of 5 stars 

“Birnam Wood” (2012): Keith and Anita live in a small chicken shack of a place, barely scraping by on his sometimes substitute-teacher job and her sometimes hostessing one. It’s a sad existence but they are relatively happy as a couple. Soon enough they are getting evicted, but then Keith’s best friend says he’s found a place they can housesit for the winter. It’s a swanky apartment in a huge mansion on a private lake called Birnam Wood. They are grateful to have heat, electricity, and a nice place, but as Keith talks to a stranger one night, he gives the impression that he and Nora aren’t a couple. The stranger thinks Nora is beautiful and shows up at their place. Keith leaves after Nora doesn’t turn away the stranger and he goes and spies on a couple through their window across the lake. A strong depiction of consumerism being far from the only thing people need to be happy. 4.5 out of 5 stars

“The End is Only a Beginning” (2023) is his most recent short story, appearing in the August 14 issue of The New Yorker. A depressed writer is going to Paris but his wife has to stay home to take care of her dying mother. He drinks heavily with a couple of women there and one has a cough. Upon his return, some kind of coronavirus has started to be widely identified and his wife, after a few days of coughing, is admitted into the hospital. She is quarantined and soon dies. He self-isolates, but he ends up being fine. While not a lot happens in this story, it is suspenseful and we are far enough away from the darkest days of COVID-19 that it makes the story pretty powerful and sad. 4 out of 5 stars

No comments:

Post a Comment