I rarely read a book of short stories all the way through. Something about the fact that I am allowed to skip around and ignore things sends me into a mania, and I do things like reading the stories backwards, or reading all the odds and then all the evens, destroying the author’s (or editor’s) carefully created structure, which is surely designed to stimulate deep thought and careful pondering. I also usually ignore at least one story altogether, because in every collection of short stories, there is a weak link, and I just don’t want to read it, so I skip it.
So I was surprised when I sat down yesterday afternoon, started reading, and surfaced several hours later, totally finished, having read the stories in order and in their entirety. This is virtually unheard of, and I almost checked for a fever, thinking that perhaps I was taken ill, and this was how it manifested.
No, the book was simply good, lending itself to that sort of thing. T.C. Boyle is a very odd duck, and this really shone through in the stories, which were weird, unsettling, and quite beautiful, in many cases, especially the title story, which Boyle stuck at the end, perhaps out of a sense of perversion. (If I ever publish a collection of short stories, I will of course call it Nefarious Pickle and Other Tales, and just to be irritating, there will be no story titled “Nefarious Pickle.”)
I struggle with short stories. I used to loathe them, with a passion, and didn’t really get into them until I went to college, when I started to appreciate the ability to pick up a book and read a single isolated vignette. Now that I like them, I grow irritated with authors who release padded, inflated collections of short stories with a few gems and a ton of schlock in an eagerness to capitalize on hungry readers. There are a lot of bad short story collections out there, and in my opinion they should be quietly taken out back, told to dig their graves, and then summarily shot.
These stories feel like squares of a quilt, brief flashes into people’s personalities and lives, but not in an unfinished way. They are also all radically different, although many have an edge of violence, or rage, or injustice, which I rather like. I’ve been in a rather violent mood lately, which is perhaps not a good thing, but this book fed my desire for violent action, leaving it temporarily sated, at least until someone fires up a chainsaw, leaves their dog outside to bark all night, idles their truck for what seems like hours right next to my house, or carries on a loud drunken conversation three feet away from my bed at three in the morning again. Boyle has not fallen into the trap of writing a bunch of stories which are all basically about the same people, and I appreciate that in my present impatient, intolerant mood.
I loved “Friendly Skies,” where a woman stabs a airline passenger with a fork (something I’ve always longed to do, myself). Many of the stories were set in California, where Boyle lives, although of course they’re set in that other California, the one to the South, but they managed to capture some of the more interesting aspects of that normally culturally arid land. I really enjoyed “The Underground Gardens,” perhaps because I’ve just finished A Tale of Two Valleys, a book in which vineyards and Italian immigrants played a large role. “She Wasn’t Soft” gave me a hint of a smirk, while “Rust” was depleted, pathetic, and yet excellent. The title story was perfect, not least because the protagonist expresses a profound irritation with “the apocalyptic potboiler, the doomsday film shot through with special effects and asinine dialogue or the cyberpunk version of a grim and relentless future,” and then gets stuck in this very situation.
I like that Boyle’s characters are often rather peculiar, and sometimes completely out of touch with reality, unable to understand the things that we take for granted. And I like the sinister undertones which are present in most of these stories, leaving the reader waiting for the other shoe to drop. Sometimes I fear that I am going to turn into one of the people in these stories, confused and faintly puzzled about the whole situation while I am quietly led away by policemen.
However, T.C. Boyle needs a new author photo. The picture of him on the back of the book is freaking me out. He looks like a two-bit slimeball who hits on little girls at the movie theatre and drives a muscle car with one of those obnoxious unmufflers on it that makes the engine sound three times as loud as it needs to. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it mars the reading experience, but I do profoundly hope that the publisher didn’t make any terrifying life-size cardboard cutouts of it, and if the publisher was the foolish, I hope I never encounter one.
After the Plague and Other Stories, by T.C. Boyle. Published 2001, 303 pages. Fiction.