Viking: 452 pp. $27.95
On paper, T.C. Boyle's latest novel, "The Women," sounds like a prizefight: Swaggering fiction heavyweight takes on America's greatest architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Boyle has written about outsized historical personalities before -- notably, cereal magnate and doctor John Harvey Kellogg in "The Road to Wellville" and midcentury sexologist Alfred Kinsey in "The Inner Circle" -- but Wright's eminence and notoriety towers over both. " 'The Women,' " Boyle has said, "is part of my egomaniacs of the 20th century series," but surely this is the culmination, the apotheosis. As a study of self-regard, how do you top a novel about Frank Lloyd Wright? With one on Picasso? Or Donald Rumsfeld?
No need to give Boyle any ideas. He's as fearless and up-for-it a writer as any working today. His output so far -- 12 novels and eight short-story collections, 20 books in 30 years -- proves he can do just about anything: big, heavily researched historical epics (arguably his forte), short mousetrap satires, headlong thrillers. It's hard to belt a theme around such a sprawling body of work, but the cause and effect between human appetite -- for fame, sex, money, freedom -- and folly nearly serves.
Critics like to scold Boyle for a lack of authorial generosity, for writing stories in which scoundrels and dopes get what's coming to them. But the recent novels (especially the rollicking "Drop City") have been emotionally complex and deeply felt -- and, anyway, what's so sacrosanct about generosity? Can't fiction run on wickedness? "Art is for entertainment," Boyle has said in one of his typically irrepressible interviews. "And so I am an entertainer."
All of which bodes well for "The Women." The father of the Prairie style of architecture and creator of Fallingwater (1939) and New York's Guggenheim Museum (1959), Wright carried on scandalous romances, endured personal tragedy and routinely uttered the kind of gasbag statements that cry out for a rambunctious satirist like Boyle. A humdinger serves as the novel's epigraph: "Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility; I chose arrogance." The potential for entertainment (and wickedness) is high.
But while "The Women" is diverting and vivid, as most Boyle novels are, it is also remarkably benign in its portrayal of Wright. Sure, he can be a touch imperious -- wonderfully so in a brief scene with a Lincoln car salesman. But more often, the novel offers him up as a magnetic, well-meaning guy, the "soul of levity," as his last wife, Olgivanna Milanoff, sees him, who "encouraged jocularity in his associates and apprentices." His signal flaw, we're told, is a weakness for strong-willed women.
This brings us to the novel's true subject: Kitty, Mamah, Miriam and Olgivanna. Different as these four are, they all worship equally at Wright's altar. Catherine "Kitty" Tobin is the dutiful wife, producing six children over two decades before reluctantly granting him a divorce. Mamah Borthwick Cheney is Wright's fiery proto-feminist "soul mate," who abandons her husband and children to travel Europe and live in sin with Wright at his Wisconsin estate, Taliesin. Maude Miriam Noel is a morphine addict with sophisticated tastes and a fearsome jealous streak. And finally, there is Olgivanna, a young Montenegrin dancer who discovers her backbone by standing up to the indomitable Miriam.
Each woman is memorable, but Miriam steals the show, tearing off her clothes, attacking Wright, brandishing a gun, hurling dinner plates across the lawn. Boyle's extravagant, even lurid prose serves him well here. On the phone with Wright, Miriam utters a "shriek, so raw and explosive it was as if the woman on the other end of the line were being stabbed in the throat." When Miriam is in a morphine daze, the syringe sticking out of her leg becomes "a parasite, some bloated tick or leech fastened there where it didn't belong."
Boyle can write with subtlety as well -- his descriptions of Taliesin are hushed and reverent -- but he seems to delight in cranking up the volume. "Slut!" Miriam screams, confronting Olgivanna in a hospital scene. "Vampire! Whore!" And then there are the horrifying murders that occurred at Taliesin, an episode in Wright's life that Boyle relates with commanding skill.
So, why isn't "The Women," as juicy and enjoyable as much of it is, a more successful book? The backward-time structure is distracting and seems chiefly intended to allow the Taliesin murders (which occurred in 1914, relatively early in Wright's career) to serve as the novel's climax. A bigger problem is the air of missed opportunity. The narrator, Tadashi Sato, a Wright apprentice and a vibrantly realized character himself, claims to want "to define the true essence of Mr. Frank Lloyd Wright." But if that's true, why focus so exclusively on Wright's women? Sure, they're irresistible targets for Boyle's wit, but Wright gets an enormous pass. Why not take his character on a bit more and maybe rough him up a little for his high-handedness and arrogance?
Could Boyle, who lives in a Frank Lloyd Wright home, the 1909 George C. Stewart house near Santa Barbara, see the architect as something of a hero, even a kindred spirit?
Perhaps Boyle never intended "The Women" to be a prizefight after all. Maybe that epigraph is less opening jab than a statement of shared principles. Wright famously said of his work, "Why, I just shake the buildings out of my sleeves."
Substitute "books" for "buildings," and you have a pretty fair description of Boyle's own productivity. On his website, the author notes the favorable early reviews of "The Women" and breezily informs his readers that a collection of stories will come out next year and that another novel should appear the year after that. So if "The Women" pulls its punches and feels a bit too kind in the end, not to worry. Boyle is on an unstoppable tear, and who knows? Maybe there's a Rumsfeld novel in the works after all.
Antrim is the author of the novel "The Headmaster Ritual."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times