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Boyle, T. Coraghessan

BOYLE, T. Coraghessan

Nationality: American. Born: 2 December 1948. Education: State University of New York, Potsdam, B.A. in English and history 1968; University of Iowa, Iowa City, M.F.A. in fiction 1974, Ph.D. in British literature 1977. Family: Married Karen Kvashay; one daughter and two sons. Career: Assistant professor, 1978-82, associate professor, 1982-86, and since 1986 professor of English, University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Awards: Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines award, 1977, for fiction; National Endowment for the Arts grant, St. Lawrence award, 1980, for Descent of Man; Paris Review 's Aga Khan prize, 1981, for fiction; Paris Review, John Train prize, 1984, for humor; Commonwealth Club of California, silver medal award, 1986, for Greasy Lake, gold medal, 1988, for World's End; Guggenheim fellowship, 1988; PEN/Faulkner Novel of the Year award, 1988, for World's End; O'Henry award, 1988, for "Sinking House," 1989, for "The Ape Lady in Retirement;" Prix Passion novel of the year, 1989, for Water Music; National Academy of Arts and Letters Howard D. Vursell memorial award, 1993, for prose excellence; Prix Medicis Etranger, 1997. D.H.L.: State University of New York, 1991. Member: Literature panel, National Endowment for the Arts, 1986-87. Agent: Georges Borchardt, 136 East 57th Street, New York, New York 10022, U.S.A.

Publications

Novels

Water Music. Boston, Little Brown, 1982; London, Gollancz, 1982.

Budding Prospects: A Pastoral. New York, Viking, and London, Gollancz, 1984.

World's End. New York, Viking, 1987; London, Macmillan, 1988.

East Is East. New York, Viking, 1990; London, Cape, 1991.

The Road to Wellville. New York, Viking, and London, Granta, 1993.

The Tortilla Curtain. New York, Viking, 1995.

Riven Rock. New York, Viking, 1998.

A Friend of the Earth. New York, Viking, 2000.

Short Stories

The Descent of Man. Boston, Little Brown, 1979; London, Gollancz, 1980.

Greasy Lake and Other Stories. New York and Harmondsworth, Viking, 1985.

If the River Was Whiskey. New York, Viking, 1989.

The Collected Stories of T. Coraghessan Boyle. London, Granta, 1993; published as T.C. Boyle Stories: The Collected Stories of T. Coraghessan Boyle. New York, Viking, 1998.

Without a Hero. New York, Viking, and London, Granta, 1994.

Santa Barbara Stories, edited by Steven Gilbar. Santa Barbara, California, John Daniel, 1998.

*

Film Adaptations:

The Road to Wellville, 1994.

Critical Studies:

Passion and Craft: Conversations with Notable Writers, edited by Bonnie Lyons and Bill Oliver. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1998.

* * *

A fictionist who delights in equal measures of the irreverent and the satiric, the ironical twist and the serious meditation, T. Coraghessan Boyle has been linked with writers such as Thomas Pychon and John Barth. What more accurately defines the arc of Boyle's career, however, is his persistent juggling of the mundane and the surreal. The result is not only stories filled with surprises; they are also balanced adroitly between the dazzle of invention and the systematic undercutting of the ordinary.

Boyle's earliest stories gave hints of longer, more ambitious novels to come. For example, "Heart of the Champion" (l975), focuses on popular TV canine/icon Lassie and her love affair with a sex-starved coyote; "A Women's Restaurant" concerns itself with a male protagonist's obsession with a women-only eatery. Seventeen of Boyle's stories from this period were collected in The Descent of Man, the title derived from a story about a woman's liaison with a chimpanzee who dotes on Nietzsche.

Water Music, his first novel, cobbles Mungo Park, the Scottish explorer, with a fictional counterpart named Red Rise. Their comic adventures in Africa are both informed by Park's actual expeditions of l795 and l805 and given a comic dimension by Rise's exploits as an irrepressible con man. What intrigued most critics, however, was the sheer verbal energy of Boyle's polysyllabic style. Here, in short, was a young, go-for-broke writer to reckon with.

Budding Prospects confirmed the suspicions that Boyle is a comic novelist potentially of the first rank. Felix Nasmyth, the novel's laconic protagonist, is a disillusioned teacher who finds himself entangled in a scheme to grow marijuana, and thus grow rich. For Nasmyth, the prospect of untold riches dances around his head like sugarplum fairies. The rub, alas, is that Nasmyth has a long track record as a quitter:

I've always been a quitter. I quit the boy scouts, the glee club, the marching band. Gave up my paper route, turned my back on the church, stuffed the basketball team I got married, separated, divorced. Quit smoking, quit jogging, quit eating red meat.

Ironically enough, the dope farm teaches the disillusioned teacher the lesson of hard work; and even when one of his associates, a fast-talking former CIA agent, skips off with the profits, it really doesn't matter. The money that had mattered so greatly at the beginning is no longer the center of Nasmyth's new, improved life.

Although Boyle continues to publish collections of short fiction (Greasy Lake and Other Stories, If the River Was Whiskey, and Without a Hero ), the formula of bizarre action superimposed on seemingly normal settings has grown both predictable and limited. There is little doubt that Boyle has a way with the one-liner, much less that his short stories make for an engaging read. But, added together, they lack the heft one expects from a writer of his talent.

With World's End, however, the larger, more expansive canvas of the novel brought him the wide critical regard he apparently craves. Set in the Hudson River Valley of New York, World's End tells the interlocking tale of three families over ten generations. In a series of collisions, simultaneously literal and figurative, the past meets the present and historical mistakes are reenacted once again. An inescapable destiny thus shapes Boyle's most ambitious and aesthetically accomplished novel thus far. By contrast, The Road to Wellville has its comic way with an easier target: the health-food sanitarium run by cereal king John Harvey Kellogg. The high jinks that went on in Battle Creek, Michigan, during the early l900s become an extended analogy for present-day food fads. Flimflammers are, of course, an abiding subject in American humor, and The Road to Wellville is a worthy enough contribution to that tradition. One turns its pages laughing, which is more than one can say of the novel's film version.

Boyle has yet to settle down as a serious writer, but those who keep their eye on contemporary American literature's best prospects know his name and look forward to his next books with anticipation.

Sanford Pinsker

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