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Doomed, but Never at a Loss for Words

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He is a beanpole in red high-top sneakers, a skull ring on one finger, his pointy goatee giving him more the look of a court jester than a man of letters. On top of it all--literally--is the ‘do, a swept-up, dusky crown that appears for all the world as if he got caught in some powerful vortex.

A single long tendril of that hair manages to escape every so often, hanging vine-like down one cheek, just out of the line of his mournful gaze.

Long after Steinbeck, this is arguably the reigning literary conscience of California, or at least a highly skewed offshoot of that tradition. T. Coraghessan Boyle is a writer of undeniable gifts whose dazzling, dark, twisted prose explores issues from illegal immigration and class struggle to the degradation of the environment.

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In Boyle’s world, when a yuppie in a freshly waxed Acura hits a poor Mexican national in Topanga Canyon, the victim immediately, and inexplicably, vanishes from sight.

That moment, from the opening pages of “The Tortilla Curtain,” his 1995 novel set in Los Angeles, plays out from the vantage point of the driver, who sees the body streak before him, the flash of a mustache, the mouth “flung open in a mute cry, and then the brake, the impact, the marimba rattle of the stones beneath the car, and finally, the dust. The car had stalled, the air conditioner blowing full, the voice on the radio nattering about import quotas and American jobs.”

Heart pounding, the driver, who is not a Mexican-hater but a liberal--a humanist who is on his way to the recycling center, for crying out loud--steps out onto “the parched strip of naked stone and litter that constituted the shoulder of the road. Before he could even catch his breath, he was brushed back by the tail wind of a string of cars racing bumper-to-bumper up the canyon like some snaking malignant train. He clung to the side of his car as the sun caught his head in a hammerlock and the un-air-conditioned heat rose from the pavement like a fist in the face, like a knockout punch.”

Boyle pushes the language, pushes and pushes and pushes it until these tragi-crazy moments come alive in Day-Glo colors. Few writers so carefully hone both their look and their imagery, bending the normal parameters of reality like so much razor wire. Nor do many social observers offer quite the canted perspective that you get from this 52-year-old father, USC professor, former heroin user and one-time bar-band saxophone player. His mind, an instrument that colleagues ponder as they might a Magritte landscape, has given itself to much thought about the future of our planet and has come to one simple and inescapable conclusion.

We’re doomed.

“It’s all over,” Boyle says emphatically, stretching out his 6-foot, 3-inch frame in the den of his 1909 Frank Lloyd Wright home in Montecito. “I don’t think there’s any hope for anybody on this planet, anywhere. I really don’t.”

Overpopulation. Pollution. Invasive species. Ecosystems breaking down, one after another, beyond the graffitied walls of an indifferent world. “The plankton are frying because of holes in the ozone layer,” Boyle says, ticking off his impressive list of worries. “The frogs are disappearing. Who knows what link makes the whole thing collapse?”

He laughs, a sharp sound often accompanied by the lurching of his long limbs. “It’s overwhelming. What can one person do?”

He writes. He writes about the scorched raw edges of human character, natural disasters, the fluke tragedies that flash in the corners of a godless random universe.

He holes up in his second-floor aerie, overlooking the wildflowers of his broad gated lawn and the majestic Santa Ynez Mountains rimming the Santa Barbara coast, and lets the wheels spin, lets it all come out: a vast assortment of novels and short stories, tales laced with black humor, tales drawn from the past, the present, the future, from Europe and Africa and especially California, from river towns and barrooms, fractured relationships, insanity and social disease--whatever preposterous thing he can shape into an allegory of life.

Consider “World’s End,” his third novel, in 1987, which captured the PEN/Faulkner Award: Boyle’s protagonist loses both feet in motorcycle accidents--two accidents, a decade apart. The aging rock star in last year’s “A Friend of the Earth” is devoured by a pet lion. A character in another novel is murdered, skinned and stuffed full of sand.

“Everything’s absurd,” Boyle says, summing up his world view, “because you have to die. There’s no real point in living. We could go with platitudes like ‘do unto others . . . ' and ‘try to preserve what you have’ and ‘be a nice guy’ and ‘create art’ and so on, but really, it just comes down to being an animal, living and dying.”

Having confronted that abysmal truth, Boyle has reached his own peace. He sees the cosmic joke and manages to laugh. He cracks one-liners; “Coraghessan” (Cor-AG-hessan), he likes to say, is Gaelic for “take two and call me in the morning.” He dresses like a rock star. He might as well crank up the noise-makers and write like there’s no tomorrow, because, hey baby, there probably isn’t.

“Yes, I have fun in life,” he declares. “I’m going to eat the last cream puff, you know.”

On a Saturday night in a small round theater at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, this man whose appearance has been likened to Ichabod Crane stands under the stage lights, facing a crowd of about 300 university students. His wife, Karen, is here, and he is right on time, as always.

Boyle has chosen for this night a conservative gray sport coat that manages to mute the effect of his shoes, outlandish leather shoes--where does he get them?--with red flames licking back from the toes, like the painted flames on the hood of an old Chevy.

“Good evening, you Obispites,” he begins, and then it’s “Saturday Night Live,” Tom Boyle at the improv: jokes, barbs, and off-the-wall literary selections. It is much the same shtick as he employs at USC, where he teaches creative writing on Mondays and Fridays, as he has for years, making the two-hour-plus commute through the rush hour.

“I thought I’d bum you out about the death of the biosphere,” he tells the Cal Poly crowd, and he mentions the drive up--all the open space he saw. “Why don’t we put a few condos there?”

It’s a good crowd, loud laughs. Boyle jokes about taking the students on his next book tour. He tells them he’s been angry and depressed for two years because of what he learned researching “A Friend of the Earth,” a cautionary yarn set in Santa Ynez in the year 2025, when global warming has wiped out most of the world’s animal species. Surviving specimens are preserved in the private menagerie of an aging pop star. The hero is an ex-environmentalist who now ekes out a living caring for them all.

“Any of the great novels in English contain the word ‘hyena’ in the first paragraph,” Boyle says, launching into chapter one: “I’m out feeding the hyena her kibble and chicken backs and doing what I can to clean up after the latest storm, when the call comes through. It’s Andrea. Andrea Knowles Cotton Tierwater, my ex-wife, my wife of a thousand years ago, when I was young and vigorous and relentlessly virile, the woman who routinely chained herself to cranes and bulldozers and seven-hundred-thousand-dollar Feller Buncher machines back in the time when we thought it mattered. . . .”

Boyle’s rising inflections, his timing and body language convey a passion for his own work that lifts it beyond what merely appears on the page. He reads from a story called “Modern Love,” about a woman so fearful of disease that she forces her lover to wear a full-body condom. He is delighted when the Q&A; session brings a query about one of his characters who is hit and killed by a meteor.

“It could happen,” Boyle insists. “I’m surprised it doesn’t happen to all of us.”

*

“The lions have had their horsemeat and the giant anteaters (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) are busy with some half-rotted beams full of Formosa termites, lunch enough, I expect, when finally I develop the sense to come in out of the wet. By this time--it must be four, four-thirty--the rain has slackened off a bit and the wind, which always seems to be peaking at Force 10 lately, seems a bit quieter too. What would you call it?--hat-extracting velocity. . . . Gusty. Blustery. Not-quite-gale-force. It rattles the hood of my slicker, slapping my cheeks with wet vinyl, thwack-thwack, and my glasses are riding up and down the bridge of my nose as if it’s been greased. Things are a mess, and no doubt about it, every step a land mine, the shrubs tattered like old sails, the trees snapped in two and then snapped in two again. But what can I do? I leave all that to Mac’s gardeners and the masochistic pup of a landscape architect who keeps popping up, unfazed, whenever the rain lets up for an hour--though with all the topsoil running off and the grass gone to seed, I can see we’ll be living in the middle of a desert here in the dry season. If it ever comes.”

--From “A Friend

of the Earth”

*

Most critics--but not all--embrace his grandiloquent style, the exquisite sentences set with a jeweler’s detail, the vocabulary worthy of Webster’s. George Plimpton, editor of the Paris Review, talks of the “extraordinary excitement” of reading one of Boyle’s stories for the first time: “Descent of Man,” which the Review published in 1977.

Author Frank Conroy, director of the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop, labels Boyle “one of the funniest writers in America” and says, “I don’t know any other writer like him.”

Yet when critic John W. Aldridge went so far as to say that " no other writer of his generation begins to equal [Boyle] in sheer eloquence and richness of language,” he drew a sharp rebuttal by Bill Mar, writing recently in the Boston Globe.

Reviewing the 690-page collection “T.C. Boyle Stories,” Mar said reading him “is like a visit to the fun house--just don’t expect more than gauche amusement. . . . In fact, over the years, Boyle’s tales have become more buffoonish. . . . Who cares if a real estate shark is stomped to death by a senile elephant or a mean stock trader is drawn and quartered by the devil?”

The words sting. Meaningless universe or not, it rankles Boyle when his art draws fire, rankles him even though he sets out to provoke his readers. “They say, ‘Oh, it’s Boyle; I’m going to lay into this guy,’ ” he says of the harshest attackers. “When you’ve written something you think is quite good, and you’ve put your heart and soul into it, to have somebody tear it apart with malice aforethought . . . that hurts. It hurts and, in fact, lately I don’t read those reviews. It just aggravates me too much.”

Look deep inside and he is not the wild, disconnected personality he might appear to be. His ambitions are immense; as a scholar of history--he earned his PhD in 19th century British literature--he has a keen regard for how he might fit into the grand scheme of things, so long as the Earth might last.

It matters to him that “Tortilla Curtain” is required reading in so many university courses, just as it matters that none of his books has been a hardcover bestseller. The 14th--a short story collection, “After the Plague"--is due out in September, and the 15th, another novel, is well under way. Total sales number almost 1 million, according to his editor, Paul Slovak of Viking, though Boyle says he is not so obsessive as to keep count. His greater concern is with quality and originality, one reason he never writes sequels.

“He’s truly a work of art,” says Alice K. Turner, the former fiction editor of Playboy magazine. “The real Tom underneath is not quite the same as the work of art. He’s actually one of the most disciplined writers I’ve ever met. He maps out his life, his career and his books in an extremely disciplined way. He’s a neat-freak. He runs around the house picking things up. This is not the image he likes to project.”

Seven days a week, every morning, Boyle writes, except when he is on a book tour. Even during family trips to the mountains, he sets aside mornings to write. Occasionally he makes those trips alone, taking a cabin in the high Sierra to walk the woods and think and set down his thoughts on the page.

Writing is what saved him, back when he was like a Boyle character, hurtling toward the abyss. His parents were alcoholics; neither attended college. Although he now speaks of them fondly, and only recently quit using the Olivetti portable typewriter his mother gave him years ago, Boyle was an aimless, rebellious youth. Like so many in the 1960s, he drifted into drugs, hung out in dark bars, with dangerous crowds.

Writing drew him back. While at the State University of New York at Potsdam, he discovered essays, then literature, then wrote a one-act play, “The Foot,” about a child eaten by an alligator--except for his left foot, preserved on his grieving parents’ coffee table. That propelled him toward acceptance to the Iowa program. He came west 23 years ago to teach at USC and never left.

Now Boyle has children of his own--a daughter attending USC and two teenage sons--and an ethic that seems downright square.

“This is going to sound real corny,” says wife Karen, “but he’s a real nice person. He’s real good with our kids. He works all the time. He does the dishes, and he likes to go to the store and buy groceries. He does the cooking a lot of times, and he always cleans up. Something happened to Tom in his 20s; it’s called maturity. He’s very responsible. Needless to say, he talks a lot.”

He also tinkers in the yard. He hauled rocks out of the mountains to create a path below the eucalyptus. He and a son built a pond where he plans to put leopard frogs. He lovingly tends the Wright house, darkly suggesting that it would crumble to sawdust if not for the hours and hours of maintenance, and props up his sneakered feet from time to time to watch the Dodgers and Angels.

*

“He was no Joltin’ Joe, no Sultan of Swat, no Iron Man. For one thing, his feet hurt. And God knows no legendary immortal ever suffered so prosaic a complaint. He had shin splints too, and corns and ingrown toenails and hemorrhoids. . . . When he was younger--really young, nineteen, twenty, tearing up the Mexican League like a saint of the stick--his ears were so sensitive he could hear the soft rasping friction of the pitcher’s fingers as he massaged the ball. . . . Now he could barely hear the umpire bawling the count in his ear. And his legs. How they ached, how they groaned and creaked and chattered, how they’d gone to fat! He ate too much, that was the problem. Ate prodigiously, ate mightily, ate as if there were a hidden thing inside him, a creature all of jaws with an infinite trailing ribbon of gut. Huevos con chorizo with beans, tortillas, camarones in red sauce, and a twelve-ounce steak for breakfast, the chicken in mole to steady him before afternoon games, a sea of beer to wash away the tension of the game and prepare his digestive machinery for the flaming machaca-and-pepper salad Asuncion prepared for him in the blessed evenings of the home stand.”

--From “The Hector

Quesadilla Story,”

in “T.C. Boyle Stories”

*

The aging pinch-hitter who limps off the bench, taking his occasional rips long after his years as a full-time ballplayer are through, might have struck out in the fictional game that Boyle creates, gone down swinging a la Thayer’s “Mighty Casey,” or hammered the winning home run, like Malamud’s Roy Hobbs. But that is not Boyle’s way.

Boyle’s hero plays on through the night, plays on into the 32nd inning, coming up there against the wild, hard-throwing Brannerman, seeing the wind-up, the pitch, the ball hanging there like a pinata. The flash of the bat is like an archangel’s sword, but still the game does not end; it drifts into a sort of mist, just goes on and on forever.

That is Boyle’s plan for himself, pretty much, until the world collapses beneath him. He will write until he is old and his hands ache, until his ribs sag clear down into his pelvis, write until his desiccated, liver-spotted skin droops like a bloodhound’s, until the neural pathways of his brain begin to flicker and wink out like old fluorescent tubes.

He addressed his obsession once in his essay “This Monkey, My Back.” He happened to be chatting with a friend, looking over travel pictures from Mexico, when the loathsome subject of retirement was broached. Boyle grabbed one of the pictures, a shot taken in the dank catacombs beneath some ancient church, and held it up--an image of “shrunken tanned hides and lipless teeth, the claws that used to be fingers, people laid out on slabs like fallen trees.”

“This,” he told his friends, “is my retirement.”


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