Friday, October 12, 2007

T. C. Boyle, "Sin Dolor"

A professional acquaintance of mine was warning me the other day of the dangers of overexposure. "You know," he said, "it's possible to publish too much." He must know me better than I thought he did, because this is a problem of mine--I want to be in every magazine, every month, forever. I don't want a single human being on earth to forget about me for one moment. Needless to say, this is not healthy, not for my psyche and definitely not for my career.

But for some reason it hasn't seemed to put a dent in T. C. Boyle's. Like Joyce Carol Oates in the eighties, he is everywhere, and his period of everywhereness seems to have extended longer than Oates's. He is absolutely a fixture--a writing addict.

Honestly, I don't mind. You can expect a certain quality of product from Boyle. I'm sure a hundred reviewers have called him a "master," and bully for him, but he's not. He is stunningly competent, though, and his stories are always enjoyable.

This one, from this week's otherwise-anemic New Yorker, is no exception. It's about a small-town Mexican doctor, a bit of a snob, who delivers a child incapable of feeling pain. He watches the boy grow, and grow more morose and desperate, as his father transforms him into a sideshow act. Terribly aged (though painlessly) at thirteen, the boy finally dies when he is challenged by some kids to jump off a building.

I like the narration of this story--it is free of the big overspiced mouthfuls of prose Boyle is sometimes prone to, and fizzes with a surprising and very appealing arrogance. The doctor's a bit of a prick, and is proud of it. But the problem with a Boyle story--and this one is no exception--is that you can see where it's going from a mile off. It's a beautiful, symmetrical construction, fitting as nicely into the literary landscape as a classic brownstone into a Manhattan street. This particular story comes off as a kind of Kafka lite, like "The Hunger Artist" except you'll never have an argument with anybody about it, like Marquez but somehow not as grand. The plot is smooth, the pieces fall gently together, and the dialogue sounds like it was taken from the movie that will someday be made of it. It's solid, and kind of disappointing.

This kind of flaw really stings me, because it's exactly the kind of thing I'm prone to--moral and emotional tidiness. So I'm likely to find greater fault with it than most people would. I sometimes feel like Boyle's shadow: the skinny bespectacled dude with an initial initial who writes too much, except I have a less adventurous hairdo and will always be less famous.

That said, Boyle is never going to flame out, and this is an enviable position to be in. I feel like his work is more inspiring to writers than it is to general readers--he makes you feel like writing is something you can do. He has always made me feel that way, anyhow, and that's worth being grateful for.


ed said...

I think I saw Less Adventurous Hairdo open for Poi Dog Pondering in 1993.

ed said...

And the next week Initial Initial opened up for The The.

jrlennon said...

Or wait, was that Was (Not Was)?

Kevin said...

Can someone, anyone, explain to me just how Boyle actually churns it all out at this pace. I really like his work, but I get the feeling I'd love his work if he weren't spread so thin, you know? Still, I don't understand how people can write this well, this fast. Please to explain.

aos said...

One thing I love about Boyle is that he is a political writer. One of my favourites by him is Tortilla Curtain which is that rarest of beasts, the engaging sociological novel. We need more of these.

I have to say that though I think about one third of his work is remarkable another one third is quite forgettable (the other somewhere in between). Though it is the curse of someone who excels that it makes some of their other work seem less than maybe it should.

jrlennon said...

Really, that is a solid batting average. And I agree, his comfort with cross-border and cross-class issues is a major point in his favor.

As for how he writes so damned much, you've got me.

Anonymous said...

" the dialogue sounds like it was taken from the movie that will someday be made of it "

Sean Martin is my son...