Boyle, T. C.
T. C. Boyle
Born Thomas John Boyle, December 2, 1948, in Peekskill, NY; son of a janitor/bus driver and secretary; married Karen Kvashay, 1974; children: Kerrie, Milo, Spencer. Education: State University of New York at Potsdam, B.A., 1968; University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, M.F.A., 1974, Ph.D., 1977.
Published first short story, "The OD and Hepatitis Railroad or Bust," in North American Review; fiction editor, Iowa Review; published first collection of short stories, The Descent of Man, 1979; published first novel, Water Music, 1981. University of Southern California, assistant professor of English, 1978–82, associate professor, 1982–86, professor, 1986–.
Awards: PEN/Faulkner Award for novel of the year, for World's End, 1988; O. Henry Award for "Sinking House," 1988; O. Henry Award for "The Ape Lady in Retirement," 1989; PEN Award for short story, PEN American Center for If the River Was Whiskey, 1990; PEN/Malamud Award for short story, 1999.
Novelist T. C. Boyle creates vivid literary portraits of the more eccentric side of the American landscape in a body of work that spans several novels and dozens of short stories dating back to the early 1980s. His eleventh novel, Talk Talk, was published in 2006 and recounted a timely tale of identity theft, told cleverly from both the victim's and the perpetrator's points of view. Other works delve into fictional portrayals of 1960s-era hippies, sex researcher Dr. Alfred Kinsey, and a pair of illegal immigrants living in the forest below a posh Los Angeles neighborhood. Boyle has been called "slightly anarchic and disregarding of convention—a sort of rock-'n'-roll writer" by New Statesman critic Keith Martin, and also characterized as America's "poet laureate of humiliation" in a New York Times Book Review assessment by Will Blythe. "He loves crackpots in their energizing delusion," Blythe added. "He catalogs foul tempers, exalts bleak humors, and never flinches from a tantrum."
Born in 1948 as Thomas John Boyle, the future author grew up in Peekskill, New York, a town situated at the northern end of Westchester County. His was a working-class household, with his father a school custodian and bus driver, and his mother employed as a secretary. Both died relatively early from alcohol-related health problems, but Boyle said of them, "they were good parents," he told Dinitia Smith in a New York Times interview. "They gave me support and love."
Boyle changed his middle name to Coraghessan (pronounced "kuh-ragg-issun") when he was 17, to add a bit of panache to it and pay homage to his Irish ancestry. There were few books in his home, yet Boyle's parents encouraged him to do well in school; his idea, however, was to make music his career. Upon his graduation from Lakeland High School, he entered the State University of New York (SUNY) at Potsdam with the intention of pursuing a music major, but failed his audition on the saxophone for the music program. He wound up writing a play for one class that was well received, and the experience sparked his interest in writing as a career.
After graduating from SUNY—Potsdam in 1968, Boyle drifted for several years. He followed his original passion by playing in a rock band; he also picked up his parents' tendency to cope with life via substance abuse when he started using heroin. A friend's overdose convinced him to kick his own habit, and he became a high school teacher at his alma mater. A story he wrote about his drug-dependent period, "The OD and Hepatitis Railroad or Bust," was published in the North American Review, and helped him land a spot in the prestigious writers' workshop and M.F.A. program at the University of Iowa. His teachers there included acclaimed American novelists John Irving and John Cheever, and he stayed on after earning his graduate degree in 1974 to pursue a doctorate in literature and serve as fiction editor of the Iowa Review.
Boyle joined the faculty of the University of Southern California (USC) in 1978 as an assistant professor of creative writing. A year later, his first collection of short stories appeared in print, The Descent of Man, followed by the novel Water Music in 1981. The 400-plus-page story was a historical novel of sorts, presenting the story of Mungo Park, a real-life Scottish explorer who traversed unknown parts of Africa in the late 1700s; it also featured his anti-hero counterpart, a London rogue named Ned Rise. The debut novel earned good reviews and established Boyle as a young American writer of note.
In 1984, Boyle's next work, the novel Budding Prospects: A Pastoral, was published. Its plot centered around a doomed-to-fail marijuana farm in a remote part of coastal California. Reviewing it for the New York Times, Eva Hoffman found some flaws in the characterization of four men who undertake the enterprise, but concluded by asserting that "Boyle possesses a rare and a redeeming virtue—he can be consistently, effortlessly, intelligently funny. Which means that he belongs to a species even harder to locate than a good, solid novelist."
The following year, Boyle's second volume of short fiction, Greasy Lake and Other Stories, was published, but his readership expanded considerably in 1987 with the appearance of his third novel, World's End. The first of his works to be set in the Hudson River Valley of his youth, the novel follows a journey of self-discovery pursued by a young man named Walter and his search for clues to the identity of his real father. Intertwined with that story are sketches from Peterskill town history dating back to the seventeenth century, and the foibles of two venerable families—Walter's humble one and their perennial nemeses, the Van Wart clan. The lengthy story, noted New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani, "gives Mr. Boyle lots of room to display his manic gift for language, his love of exaggeration and Grand Guignol effects, his ability to work all sorts of magical variations on literature and history."
World's End won Boyle the PEN/Faulkner Award for best novel of the year. By this point he had been made a full professor at USC, but his teaching schedule allowed him ample time to work on his short stories and novels. Another collection, If the River Was Whiskey, appeared in 1990, followed a year later by the novel East Is East, a comic tale of a half-American Japanese sailor who seeks asylum in the country he reveres, but winds up hiding out in a writers' colony in coastal Georgia.
Boyle's next novel was the first to be made into a Hollywood movie. The Road to Wellville, published in 1993, presented a fictional portrait of two real-life brothers, the Kelloggs of Battle Creek, Michigan, in a story set in the early years of the twentieth century. The inventive brother, who devised a cereal-flaking process that launched the Kellogg Cereal empire, was forced out of the company by his brother, but John Harvey Kellogg's revenge comes in the form of a well-known sanitarium in Battle Creek, where the wealthy and famous come to re-energize through a strict diet and bizarre cure regimens. Oddly, the novel received some of the worst reviews of Boyle's career, with critics almost unanimously describing it as overlong and overwritten.
Boyle's next book, a comic examination of the conundrum of illegal immigration in America, fared better with critics. The Tortilla Curtain, published in 1995, presents another intertwined pair of plots: that of an illegal immigrant from Mexico, Candido, along with the motorist whose car hits him on a dark road in Topanga Canyon, where both men live. Candido, however, lives in a makeshift camp in the forest with his pregnant wife, America, while trust-funder Delaney feels guilty about his community's efforts to eradicate the illegal-immigrant encampment from view. The two men's "lives proceed along parallel courses, occasionally intersecting," wrote Barbara Kingsolver in her review for Nation, "but while Candido and America vomit in pain, reel with hunger, and are hunted like animals, Delaney's family counts calories and gets depressed over lost pets." Echoing past reviews of his work, Kingsolver noted that Boyle's characters did not seem to be fully developed, but she conceded that "what Boyle does, and does well, is lay on the line our national cult of hypocrisy. Comically and painfully he details the smug wastefulness of the haves and the vile misery of the have-nots."
Boyle continued to find inspiration for his fiction in the real-life tales of American eccentrics. In the mid-1990s, he moved with his family to Santa Barbara, California, and began hearing stories about the new and old fortunes that built the great, oceanview estates of the area earlier that century. He was particularly fascinated by the story of Stanley McCormick, whose family grew immensely wealthy thanks to his father's 1831 farm-reaper invention and the founding of the International Harvester company. Boyle used it as the basis for his 1998 novel, Riven Rock. Stanley was an athlete, artist, and Princeton graduate, but suffered from a schizophrenia that worsened considerably a few years into his marriage to Katherine Dexter, an eminent biologist and women's rights advocate. Boyle recounts a fictional portrayal of Stanley, Katherine, and his male caretaker nurses during the 20-year period when he was locked inside his palatial home, known as Riven Rock, after he started to physically attack any woman he saw, including his wife and sisters. The male nurses who care for him, especially a hard-drinking one named Eddie O'Kane, and the succession of doctors promising Katherine they could cure her husband, round out the rest of a tale that Booklist's Grace Fill called "an imaginative and touching work."
Boyle's short stories continued to appear regularly in the New Yorker, Atlantic, Harper's, and other publications, and were periodically assembled into volumes that included T. C. Boyle Stories, a 1998 title, and After the Plague in 2001. In the late 1990s, he began to drop the "Coraghessan" from his name. For his 2003 novel, Drop City, Boyle returned to the California landscape and the counterculture of the late 1960s and early '70s. The plot centers around members of a California commune who flee north to Alaska, but "the hippies clash with the handful of survivalists and sex-starved bush crazies who live there," noted Lev Grossman in a Time International review, "and the slow-motion collision of these two fragile communities makes for an engrossing spectacle." The novel earned Boyle his first nomination for a National Book Award.
Boyle's next effort was the 2004 novel, The Inner Circle, which presented a fictional portrayal of mid-twentieth-century sexual-behavior scientist Dr. Alfred Kinsey. The narrator is one of Kinsey's fictional research assistants, and the story centers around the close-knit circle of colleagues whom Kinsey encouraged to free themselves from traditional moral taboos of the era. "What intrigued me most about Kinsey," Boyle explained to Smith in the New York Times profile, "is his belief that we are simply animals and that sex is biological. But I started to wonder about the emotional side, the way he ran his own life and controlled the people around him in his mission to record our sexual behavior."
In 2005, a specially selected collection of Boyle's previously published short fiction appeared under the title The Human Fly and Other Stories, and was aimed at his unusually high number of teenaged readers. The stories include his classic "Greasy Lake" along with "Love of My Life," about a young couple who try to hide an unplanned pregnancy. The following year, his eleventh novel, Talk Talk, was published to excellent reviews. The identity-theft tale centers around a deaf woman whose Social Security number and other personal information have been hijacked by a master thief, and again Boyle presents a dual narrative: one of Dana and her boyfriend's cross-country journey to confront the perpetrator, and that of the villain himself, who uses so many aliases that he can barely recall the true details of his own identity.
Boyle remains a professor at USC, and he and his wife, whom he wed in 1974, have three children. Daughter Kerrie Kvashay-Boyle followed in her father's footsteps at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and has been published in the literary journal McSweeneys. Boyle retains much of his iconoclastic aura, showing up at readings in quasi-punk/'70s rocker attire, including his trademark red Converse high-tops. The illicit drugs he gave up long ago remain a distant memory, and he sometimes says that finding his voice through fiction helped him move past his self-destructive tendencies. "Art bailed me out," he told Louisa Ermelino in an interview that appeared in Publishers Weekly. "It sounds corny but there's a power in it that I would never give up. There's a light that fills you when you're writing; there's a magic. I don't know what it is. It's a miracle and it's a rush and immediately on finishing, you want to do it again."
Water Music, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1981.
Budding Prospects: A Pastoral, Viking (New York City), 1984.
World's End, Viking, 1987.
East Is East, Viking, 1991.
The Road to Wellville, Viking, 1993.
The Tortilla Curtain, Viking, 1995.
Riven Rock, Viking, 1998.
A Friend of the Earth, Viking, 2000.
Drop City, Viking, 2003.
The Inner Circle, Viking, 2004.
Talk Talk, Viking, 2006.
The Descent of Man, Little, Brown, 1979.
Greasy Lake and Other Stories, Viking, 1985.
If the River Was Whiskey, Viking, 1990.
Without a Hero, Viking, 1994.
T. C. Boyle Stories, Viking, 1998.
After the Plague, Viking, 2001.
Tooth and Claw, Viking, 2005.
The Human Fly and Other Stories, Speak (New York City), 2005.
Booklist, November 15, 1997, p. 523.
Entertainment Weekly, March 7, 2003, p. 74.
Irish Times (Dublin, Ireland), May 31, 2003, p. 55.
Nation, September 25, 1995, p. 326.
New Statesman, June 26, 1998, p. 56.
New York Times, December 27, 1981; May 19, 1984; September 23, 1987; September 27, 2004.
New York Times Book Review, July 30, 2006, p. 16.
Publishers Weekly, June 19, 2006, p. 24.
Time International, March 10, 2003, p. 51.
San Francisco Chronicle, March 6, 2004, p. D1.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 17, 2003, p. F1.
Writer, October 1999, p. 26.