T. C. Boyle has a way of shaking things up in the North Bay without really trying. When the novelist, short story writer and UCSC professor came through town in 2003, it was to promote his locally contentious novel Drop City, partly set in a fictionalized amalgam of Wheeler and Morningstar ranches up in the wilds outside Occidental. Hazed then for loosely pulling together truth and tale, Boyle shrugged and underscored that he makes stuff up for a living. If his fiction comes perilously close to fact, so be it.
Preparing to come through on Feb. 20 to support Wild Child, his new collection of short stories, Boyle finds himself again in the angry glare, this time somewhat surprisingly for his 1995 novel The Tortilla Curtain. A richly envisioned retelling of The Grapes of Wrath, Curtain juxtaposes the life of a politically correct Southern Californian couple against the tragic arc of an immigrant Mexican couple. In addition to natural disasters and plain old human foolishness, the text contains swear words and a rape.
The book is currently on the Santa Rosa high school curriculum, and a parent has tried unsuccessfully to have the novel removed from the required reading list, causing many letters to the editor and much renewed discussion over the pluses and minuses of censorship. Boyle is wearily used to it.
"One of the teachers wrote to me, and I wrote a letter of support," he explains by phone from a book tour stopover in Denver, Colo. "The educators should be the ones picking the books, not a single yahoo parent. This is a knee-jerk reaction among parents who don't understand what the book means, and they're acting from their own fears and prejudices."
Fear, prejudice, natural disasters and plain old human foolishness are among the recurring themes for this prolific author, a writer who has come to define Southern California's tight fight with nature (he lives in Santa Barbara), as well as one who illuminates such historical figures as Frank Lloyd Wright (The Women), Alfred Kinsey (The Inner Circle) and Dr. John Henry Kellogg (The Road to Wellville).
His new collection, Wild Child, revisits the loose funky male voice that is a Boyle trademark, and in the title story, a restating of the so-called wild boy of Aveyron, looks at the tension between man and earth. "It reminds me of that time when we were kids and mom was reading the Grimm stories to us at bedtime, and children were always being taken out and left in the woods, and, of course, that's because they were all starving to death and they had to get rid of them," he says. "There was a scar on his throat, someone had tried to put him out of his misery, and so he's one who grew up without acculturation and language. What is the distinction between us and the animals? We have language. But he doesn't have language. So what makes him human?"
But it is with the voice of the male reprobate—the dude who tries to grow pot in Budding Prospects or the three buddies in the story "Greasy Lake"—where Boyle's narrative ease is paramount. In the new story "The Lie," a young father who simply wants to go to the movies instead of to work tells an increasingly tall set of whoppers to his boss until he commits the final prevaricator's crime. What's it like for Boyle to inhabit that slacker's voice?
"There is a delicious feeling to coming up with stuff like that," he chuckles, adding that he never knows where a story is going, not even a novel, until he gets there. Moreover, Boyle is that rare breed of author who enjoys touring.
"I love to perform. I love to turn people on," he enthuses. "Literature is something that should be alive, and I love to share that with kids, like the kids in Santa Rosa who read my stuff as an assignment instead of getting any of the subversive joy of it.
"We can intellectualize it forever and go to the university and the critics and all the theorists, but after all is said and done, it is an entertainment. What that yahoo woman said about Tortilla Curtain is secondary. It's a story, it's meant to entertain you, even if it horrifies you. We all have to try to address the world in our own way, and any work of art helps to make you feel something."
T. C. Boyle reads from 'Wild Child' on Saturday, Feb. 20, at the Dance Palace. 503 B St., Pt. Reyes Station. 7pm. $10. 415.663.1542.
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