It was one of those perfect southern California afternoons, the sun peeking through a thick grove of trees, the air just a touch autumnal. I was eating lunch with the novelist TC Boyle in the backyard of his Frank Lloyd Wright–designed house in Montecito, the posh enclave of Santa Barbara in California where he has lived for more than two decades, raising three children with his wife of 42 years. His black puli, Ilka, played happily on the deck. “It’s quite clear to me that our species is on the way out,” Boyle said casually, as if the scene had grown just a little too suburban. It is the novelist’s job, after all, to jostle us out of our comforts, while being entertaining – that is, to make discomfort pleasurable.
Boyle has proved remarkably capable in this regard through his 26 works of fiction, which combine the zany humour of early Woody Allen with An Inconvenient Truth’s concern for our collective fate. Boyle’s latest novel, The Terranauts: A Novel, is set in the desert of Arizona – which, with global warming on the rise, much of California is starting to resemble. It is the story of a Biosphere 2–like experiment to prepare for the colonisation of space, giving humanity the chance to ruin another planet with Starbucks-laden strip malls.
There had been encouraging news on the day I met Boyle about SpaceX, the Mars mission overseen by Tesla founder Elon Musk. “Elon Musk is a great, great, great visionary,” Boyle told me. “However, I think he’s mistaken. I don’t think it’s possible to recreate an ecosystem.” Besides, Boyle mused, the class politics of space colonies are sure to be brutal to those who can’t afford a ticket to get up and out. “Who’s gonna be left behind to die in their own shit?”
The sunny tranquillity of southern California seemed like the wrong setting for fantasies of the apocalypse. Then again, no place may be more aware of its precariousness than this state blessed by so much bounty and fraught with so much danger. In the north, wildfires were burning. Earlier that day, I had driven past Lake Cachuma, which Boyle pointed out was at only about 10 percent capacity because of California’s years-long drought. And there was going to be an earthquake. Probably a tsunami too, with the occasional mudslide and windstorm to keep things interesting. “It looks pretty damn grim to me,” Boyle said as we popped cubes of salty cheese into our mouths and sipped our carbonated water. “Maybe we better get some colonies going real fast.”
If you saw Boyle buying milk at the Montecito Village Grocery, you might think he’s a former Megadeth roadie. With his red goatee and ear piercings, his rings and ever-present beret, he looks like someone who’s done some real living and will tell you all about it, if you’re willing to spend 40 minutes on the Santa Barbara wharf while he bums cigarettes from tourists. Boyle is the typical Californian in that he came from elsewhere, born in 1948 in Peekskill, New York, a working-class town in the Hudson Valley. His father drove a school bus; his mother was a secretary. “I come from a long line of Irish alcoholics – both my parents, my grandfather,” Boyle told me after I pointed out that many of his characters indulge in alcohol, though few seem to be aware that they are slipping into addiction. “I’m writing about it because I’m whistling in the dark.”
Unlike some literary predecessors, who believed drugs or alcohol heightened their creative powers, Boyle will write only when sober. His primary intoxicant when working at his desk is music, either classical or jazz. He left home for the State University of New York at Potsdam. “I went there for music school,” he said. “But I flunked my audition.” Things didn’t get much better for the self-described “poor undergrad” until his junior year, when Boyle “blundered into a creative writing classroom – and that kind of lit me up”.
He returned home to teach high-school English and turned to heroin, though he says he was never a junkie. “What really saved my life was the Iowa Writers’ Workshop accepting me as a student,” he said. That was largely because of a story called The OD & Hepatitis Railroad or Bust, published in the North American Review in 1972. The story is about heroin addiction. After getting his master of fine arts degree at Iowa, he stayed and got a doctorate too, in Victorian literature. “I didn’t know anything,” he said with a laugh, remembering how he “hungered” for knowledge.
Boyle published his first book nearly four decades ago, in 1979. It was a collection called The Descent of Man, a title Charles Darwin had used a century earlier. Like the naturalist, Boyle applied a clinical curiosity to our intractable species, which in his work seems prone to devolution less than progress. The New York Times praised Boyle for creating vivid characters “in search of the differences between man and beast, man and woman, plunderer and hero, art and silliness”, but warned that while Boyle was “capable of the sublime”, some of his stories were “merely clever”.
He still battles that criticism. “I was obsessed with Donald Barthelme, with Robert Coover, with Günter Grass and Italo Calvino and Gabriel Garcia Marquez,” he told The New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman two years ago. “All of these writers who had a bizarre sense of humour and a bizarre worldview. And I share it with them.”
But Boyle is not really like Barthelme or Coover, whose readers tend to be graduate students enthralled more by poststructuralist theories of narrative dissembling than a good story. Boyle draws frequent comparison to the postmodernist Don DeLillo, but DeLillo often seems to live in his own world, while Boyle remains resolutely in ours. “Tom does many things very well,” Treisman says. “But probably the most salient for me is the way he manages to imagine himself into a narrative or a character you might have read about briefly in a news story and forgotten or dismissed. “He finds the humans and the humanity behind the headlines.”
His engagement with the headlines, with the world beyond his head, is welcome at a time of literary introspection: memoir as art, confession as originality. Boyle is always going outside himself, jumping into foreign skins. That gives his fiction a restless quality that some readers may find off-putting, but Boyle can’t help himself. He needs to keep exploring, “trying to figure human life and what’re doing and who we are”, as he told me. “That’s my job. That’s why I do it. And to make art – because making art is a great thing. It takes you out of yourself.”
A few years ago, my wife and I drove up the Hudson Valley from New York City. This was Boyle’s native country, though of course we didn’t know it as such then. The factories were gone and so were most of the hippies. In the hills above the river, you could sometimes glimpse one of the manor houses that stood there for centuries, presiding over history’s weird convolutions. During a stop in a town that had been halfway colonised by hipster refugees from Brooklyn, we went into a bookstore, where I wanted to find something set in the region. I saw, prominently displayed, a novel called World’s End. Published in 1987, World’s End was Boyle’s third novel. A history of the Hudson Valley from the time of the Dutch settlement to the labour and racial unrest of the 20th century, the novel is equal parts Thomas Pynchon, Washington Irving and Garcia Marquez. Rolling Stone said the novel elevated Boyle to the “top rank of American fiction”, the critic Anthony DeCurtis arguing that Boyle was a superior talent to contemporaries known as the Brat Pack (Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz, Bret Easton Ellis), who were so busy looking for their next high, they forgot to supply the reader with the potent drug that is great fiction.
Though Boyle also came of age as a writer in the 1980s, it’s impossible to imagine one of his novels as a John Hughes movie. That’s something to be proud of. World’s End established Boyle as a literary success; The Road to Wellville, coming six years later, conferred pop culture cachet. The novel, about a sanitarium founded by Dr John Harvey Kellogg, the cereal impresario, became a feature film starring Anthony Hopkins and John Cusack. It is the only one of his novels turned into a full-length movie, though the madcap quality of his fiction seems easily adaptable to the screen (as I was finishing this article, reports indicated that a Terranauts series was in the works for The CW network in the US). Two years later came the novel that many regard as Boyle’s finest: The Tortilla Curtain, which brilliantly condenses questions of national identity into a Los Angeles enclave that builds a wall to keep out undocumented immigrants (sound familiar?). “The Tortilla Curtain resonates in high school classrooms,” reported The Press Democrat of northern California in 2010, 15 years after its publication. Yet the article wasn’t merely a celebration of the novel, with a parent complaining that “the book is too sexually graphic and racially offensive to be taught in the classroom”.
The Tortilla Curtain had detractors from the start; in her review in Los Angeles Times, Jane Birnbaum complained: “This is a book that bigots can love; it drips with racism and xenophobia. If you’re white and angry, reading this book may be a guilty pleasure with its lustily incorrect expressions of white backlash.” This misses the novel’s humour and humanity. Boyle’s characters, fighting for their patch of valley paradise, seem to misunderstand one another as violently and willfully as the cops and rioters squaring off in Watts.
Given the current sensitivities over cultural appropriation, racial identity and immigration, a novel like The Tortilla Curtain would probably receive an even harsher reception today than it did two decades ago, with Boyle denounced on Twitter with woke hashtags and proposed boycotts (yes, he is on Twitter). The author Lionel Shriver recently gave the literati heart attacks with her speech at a writers’ conference in Brisbane, Australia, where she blasted away at the sanctimoniousness of literary identity politics, “proliferating prohibitions supposedly in the interest of social justice that constrain fiction writers and prospectively make our work impossible”. She did it while wearing a sombrero. Boyle was at his cabin in the Sierra County foothills, so he missed the Twitter outrage to Shriver’s words. However, when I told him the details, he supported her – as have nearly all serious writers and critics. “What can be more racist,” he wondered, “than trying to say that white people can only write about white people?”
Whether writing in the first person or third, he has inhabited the perspective of a 17th-century Dutch nobleman; a young African-American woman house sitting a genetically engineered dog for a wealthy white couple; the lovers of Frank Lloyd Wright, their story told by the architect’s Japanese acolyte; the undocumented Mexican immigrant at the centre of The Tortilla Curtain, as well as that of his wife; a Venezuelan professional baseball player whose mother has been kidnapped; and a feral boy whose capture perplexes and scandalises Napoleonic-era France. Most of these characters are verbose and quirky and a little neurotic, which is to say they are all versions of Boyle.
“It’s intoxicating to read him,” says Daniel Halpern, the publisher of the HarperCollins subsidiary Ecco, who recently enticed Boyle away from Viking Press. “He’s fun.” The more you think about it, the larger that plainspoken compliment looms. Literary fiction, like haute cuisine, has fallen under the spell of those who have conflated pain with sophistication: if you’re enjoying it, you’re doing it wrong. Maybe it’s the fun factor, then, that makes some in the high priesthood of publishing uneasy about Boyle. It’s strange to think of a writer in his late 60s coming into his own, especially one with 26 titles to his name. Though the novels differ wildly, they all seek to express “the grinding sadness of the world”, as he put it in the 2007 short story Sin Dolor.
Barthelme and Coover reached for something similar, but their postmodern tricks impressed the creative writing establishment while doing nothing for the average reader. Boyle’s fiction, on the other hand, has become more pleasurable and enriching, particularly after The Tortilla Curtain, which he called “my first largely non-funny novel” in The Paris Review. “I seem to be writing novels of social engagement,” he said in the same interview, citing “insoluble problems of environmental degradation, overpopulation and the imminent collapse of the biosphere – cheerful stuff”.
The best of Boyle’s novels warn against the varieties of human extremism: our problems may be grave, he often says, but we make them worse by acting on our unexamined impulses and convictions. His novels are a vivid plea for moderation – the literary equivalent of being a passionate Hillary Clinton supporter in the midst of a Bernie Sanders rally. The central conflict in When the Killing’s Done is between the biologist Alma Boyd Takesue and the strident activist Dave LaJoy. Takesue has been tasked with exterminating rats on a California island to preserve other species. Some environmentalists, though, refuse to grasp that biological diversity requires compromises, sometimes even fatal ones. “You’re not better than executioners,” LaJoy tells her. “Nazis, that’s what you are.”
In The Harder They Come, the unmoored antihero Adam Stensen rails against “the hostiles, because they were coming and they would just take what they wanted and nobody to stop them”. Spoiler alert: both LaJoy and Stensen end up dead, men doomed by their stubborn convictions. Boyle has also become one of our finest chronicles of the American west, a landscape sometimes unspoiled but frequently scarred. His favourite setting is surely the Channel Islands, which sit off the coast of southern California like a half-submerged beast (the killing of When the Killing’s Done takes place there), largely primaeval and free of development. In Anacapa, a short story about a fishing expedition to one of those islands, the narrator marvels about how “the world opened up all the way to the big dun humps of the islands before them”. Yet in the distance are “oil rigs like old men wading with their pants rolled up”, suggesting the conflict at the centre of Boyle’s work. His observant eye is not confined to California. In The Terranauts: A Novel, he describes the high desert of Arizona in the midst of winter, “everything in bloom with the winter rains and the light spread like a soft film over the spine of the mountains. There would have been a faint sweetness to the air, a kind of dry rub of sage and burnt sugar”.
Used as filler, such evocative natural scenes could consign Boyle to the purple-prose country of Cormac McCarthy. Instead, he uses such language sparingly, to remind his readers and his characters what they are always on the verge of squandering. After lunch, I watched Boyle clean his pond, fretting over the fact that his net was probably catching fish that ate insects. We are always seeking balance and always disrupting it. His dog watched with what looked like mild disapproval. “We have the makings of nice salad here,” Boyle said, holding up some wet leaves he’d pulled out of the water.
In his novels and in real life, he relies on a plangent sense of humour that belongs as much to his people, the Irish, as to mine, the Jews. The world goes to shit. Yet we must have salad. It was nearly time for me to go. All afternoon, Boyle had been needling me about having to drive back to Los Angeles at the height of the Friday afternoon rush. He knew that route intimately, having commuted several times a week to the University of Southern California, where he taught until retiring at the beginning of this year. Boyle plans to devote himself to writing full time, though it is difficult to see how he could write any more than he already does.
Although The Terranauts: A Novel was only published last month, he has already handed in a collection of short stories and is researching a new project, which he wouldn’t tell me about. Some days later, back home, I was on my bike when a bumper sticker caught my eye: “Giant meteor 2016: Just end it already.” This reminded me of Boyle’s most famous short story, Chicxulub. Half of the story is about a girl killed in a car accident; the other half is about Chicxulub, the real-life asteroid that slammed into our watery little pebble about 66 million years ago, causing a mass extinction. It is a story of doom great and small. Avoid one, and you’re bound to get nailed by the other. The story ends on one of the darkest and most poignant notes in modern American fiction: “The rock is coming, the new Chicxulub, hurtling through the dark and the cold to remake our fate.”
We are all doomed. No wall can save you. Enjoy your salad.
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