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The lady and the tiger

Characters collide with fateful choices and untamed nature

In this masterful new story collection, T.C. Boyle delights in dropping down-to-earth characters into surreal scenarios. In this masterful new story collection, T.C. Boyle delights in dropping down-to-earth characters into surreal scenarios. (Ann Johansson for The New York Times/File 2004)
By Buzzy Jackson
February 7, 2010

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Which is more revealing: the mundane action we repeat every day, or our response to an extraordinary event that will never come again? Anyone familiar with the work of T.C. Boyle already knows his answer: crisis all the way. In “Wild Child,’’ his exhilarating new collection of short stories, Boyle captures characters facing a range of critical turning points. Some of these moments are quiet: An unexpected emotional connection is made in a rundown recording studio (“Three Quarters of the Way to Hell”); a college graduate wonders whether she should accept a menial dog-sitting job (“Admiral”). Others are more obviously dramatic: A woman encounters an escaped tiger in her suburban garden (“Question 62”); a Venezuelan baseball player discovers his mother has been kidnapped (“The Unlucky Mother of Aquiles Maldonado”). In Boyle’s world, they all have the potential to become peak experiences.

While the scenarios may be surreal, the characters experiencing them are decidedly down-to-earth. These are real people with real jobs: nursing home attendants, lawyers, and struggling musicians. Some, like Lonnie (“The Lie”), a would-be film editor, are trapped in disasters of their own making. Desperate for a day off, he decides to tell his boss a little white lie and ends up blurting out: “The baby’s dead.” Lonnie knows he’s made a big mistake: “I didn’t feel giddy, didn’t feel liberated or even relieved,” he says. “[A]ll I felt was regret and the cold drop of doom.” This is merely one in a series of awful decisions. A few impulsive phone calls prove to be the beginning of the end of Lonnie’s job, his marriage, and his sense of identity - and he doesn’t even know how it happened.

The book’s title, “Wild Child,’’ is taken from its final and longest story, a reimagining of the historical saga of Victor, the feral boy discovered in the woods in 18th-century France. This tale of the intersection of wilderness and civilization is indeed emblematic of the collection as a whole; nearly every story finds its characters confronted with untamed nature, whether in the form of a feral animal, a meteorological disaster, or simply the chaos of fate.

In “La Conchita,” Gordon is a messenger with a special assignment: He must transport a human liver in time for a life-saving transplant. When his route to the hospital is suddenly blocked by a freak mudslide, he must choose between staying with his precious cargo or helping a stranger dig out her family. Boyle is strongest when writing in the first person, and in “La Conchita” he effortlessly channels the self-righteous interior monologue of a driver who’s been on the road too long. “Get distracted and you could wind up meat. I know that,” Gordon says. “The truckers know that. But just about everybody else - Honda drivers, especially, and I’m sorry - don’t even know they’re behind the wheel and conscious half the time . . . they still think they’re part of some secret society that allows them to cut people off at will. . . . So hip. So Honda. And yes, I carry a gun.”

By the end of the story this gun-toting Honda-hater has given up all trace of cynicism. “[T]he whole thing suddenly came clear to me,” Gordon says, looking over the destruction and the mud. “This was the real deal.” Abandoning his car, Gordon is reborn. “I started back up the hill . . . just to see if anybody else needed digging out.” They may be disturbed; they may be flaky; but Boyle’s characters are believable and for the most part sympathetic. Most of these folks are optimistic in a glum sort of way, convinced that if they can just change one detail of their lives, improve one aspect of themselves, or get one lucky break, their destiny will be transformed. Hapless as they are, it’s hard not to root for them.

Boyle is less successful when he crosses the borders of time and space. Stories such as “Sin Dolor,” “The Unlucky Mother of Aquiles Maldonado,” and “Wild Child” take place in Mexico, Venezuela, and France, respectively, and while Boyle’s detailed depiction of the settings is convincing, he’s never quite able to inhabit these worlds as comfortably as he does contemporary America. All three of these stories veer into the territory of fable and as such they lack the humor and immediacy of the rest of the collection.

“Bulletproof,” in contrast, set in the commuter suburbs of contemporary New York City, presents us with Cal, a semidepressed guy just trying to get through the week. When his buddy challenges him to speak out against religious influence on the local school’s science curriculum, he sighs. It’s the sigh of a man hoping to get by with lowered expectations. “I was in a bar. It had been a long day. I wanted to talk about nothing, sports, women, the subtle manipulations of the commercials for beer, cars, Palm Pilots.” We know exactly how he feels. Cal, the dog-sitters, the liver couriers, the lying film editors: These are the flawed heroes of Boyleville. Sometimes triumphant, more often sad, they’re as real as the memories of old acquaintances whose lives continue, somewhere, whether we know it or not.

Buzzy Jackson is the author of the forthcoming book, “Shaking the Family Tree: Blue Bloods, Black Sheep, and Other Obsessions of an Amateur Genealogist.’’

WILD CHILD: And other stories By T.C. Boyle

Viking, $25.95, 304 pp.