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T. C. (Coraghessan) Boyle

By Ann Connery Frantz
Published: Aug 17, 2011
Category: Fiction

Guest Butler Ann Connery Frantz won the Dr. Neila Seshachari Award in 2010 for best fiction for her short story, Samaritan. She writes a book club column for the Worcester, Mass., Telegram & Gazette and blogs at and


I’m often drawn to writers who approach fiction with eyes open, peeling the layers off despair and self-delusion. Like Andre Dubus III, who depicts a deadly collision between immigrants and a dispossessed homeowner in “House of Sand and Fog.” (Check his new memoir, “Townie,” for his own transformation from street punk to author.) Or Louise Erdrich’s body of work about contemporary Native American life. Or the late David Foster Wallace, whose short story, “Incarnations of Burned Children,” spared us nothing
T. C. (Coraghessan) Boyle is another. Spare and sharp-eyed as a carrion bird, with a face made beguiling by his tidy red moustache and goatee — a sort of Conan O’Brien of the literary scene — he writes with the kind of insight that unmasks familiar pretensions. That immigrants are trying to milk the breast of America’s wealth (The Tortilla Curtain). That living communally in the Alaskan wilderness is the good life, the free life (Drop City). That we are above the laws of nature (A Friend of the Earth).
There’s no preaching, no proselytizing here. He paints the picture, then leaves us with a question: Do we even comprehend the good or harm we do to others, and to the world?
In his latest novel, “When the Killing’s Done,” Boyle lays out the rather arrogant assumptions about humankind and nature to which rabid environmentalists, as well as scientists, fall prey. He pits biologists and park rangers seeking eco-balance on California’s northern Channel Islands against a group of violence-prone activists bent on undoing the rangers’ attempts to restore balance to the animal and plant species of the islands. (To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle download, click here.)

It begins with the rats, which swam to Anacapa, one of the islands, after a mid-nineteenth century shipwreck. They must be eliminated on Anacapa, where they are killing rare bird species, and have created an imbalance that endangers the nearby island of Santa Cruz (which is already overrun with pigs).
“Rats,” says a dedicated biologist, “are responsible for 60 percent of all island extinctions in the world today.” Bent on saving these rats, however, the activists launch a series of disaster-ridden plots, each more damaging than the last, and each creating a new threat to the island’s species.
Ultimately, people die out of disregard for the power of natural elements, and all of their efforts — rangers’ and activists’ — are left in question.
In much of his fiction, Boyle plants the question: Is there ever a right way to mess with Mother Nature? The most honorable motives are doomed, quite simply, by the tendency for any good plan to go awry, as it inevitably — and fatally — does.
Witness the tail end of “When the Killing’s Done”:

Somewhere there’s a fox, its eyes stealing the light. This isn’t one of the foxes that’s been caged or collared or even captured. He’s a survivor, a fighter, the flange of his nose torn in a forgotten dispute over territory and healed and torn and healed again. There’s movement in the nighttime grass—crickets will be out, scorpions, things with the juice of life in them. He’s alert and listening. And somewhere, in the deepest shadow of the hacked yellow grass, something else moves in a slow sure friction of scale and grasping vertebrae—a colonist, a rafter, a survivor of a different kind altogether. Picture the stripped-back slink of muscle, the flick of the tongue, the cold fixed eyes that don’t need to see a thing. And hush. The grass stirs, the moon sinks into the water. Night on Santa Cruz Island, night immemorial.
I couldn’t take so much darkness without Boyle’s humor, layered within the gritty goings-on without warning. People get drunk. People make love, People mess up. Yeah, bacy! We’re all having such a good time.

I began to read him avidly after discovering “The Tortilla Curtain,” about a pair of homeless illegal immigrants struggling to make it in the rich white man’s world of southern California, but doomed by exploitation, poverty and racism. This stark tale, set under a protruding rock below a Topanga Canyon highway, is impossible to forget; it will jar your concept of migrant life in America.


I went on to short stories like “All the Wrecks I’ve Crawled Out Of” and “Dogology” (both in the collection “Tooth and Claw”). He writes about the primal desires and behaviors — some not very nice — in humankind. Sometimes I laugh. Sometimes I cringe.
Boyle, a professor of English at the University of Southern California, has written nearly two dozen books of fiction — novels and short story collections. Once, with envy, I saw his byline on the cover of three major magazines on a bookstore rack, occupying the coveted “one piece of fiction” for each issue that month. He is the darling of magazines like Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, McSweeney’s. Only Joyce Carol Oates is more annoyingly omnipresent (to others who covet those spots). It’s probably not necessary to add that he’s won a passel of writing honors. He blogs with sly wit about his life and his writing (with a few drop kicks for the Sarah Palins of the world) at his website.
Boyle has recently turned fact into fiction as well, elevating water into wine. Riven Rock tells the story of Stanley McCormick, a wealthy heir wed to a leader in the newly emerging women’s movement before his schizophrenia and sexual mania confined him for 20 years to an estate near Boyle’s house. A lot of the manic characters pop up in Boyle’s books — truth is just as strange as his fiction.
In similar form, The Women, published in 2009, explores the love life and career of architect Frank Lloyd Wright through the stories of women Wright loved. His novel, in that magical way of fiction, brings fame and reputation into the light of truth.
He may piss you off, may upset or worry you, but one thing’s absolute: T.C. Boyle will not bore you.