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Tooth and Claw by T C Boyle
Sunday 22 January 2006
Not including an anthology compiled from previous collections, this is his sixth book of stories, and one of the best. The tales are linked by the common theme of human behaviour at its most extreme and animal, with characters that include a woman bored with suburbia who tries to join a pack of dogs, a radio DJ who attempts to set the world record for non-stop broadcasting only to lapse into bizarre psychosis, and a man who copes with his divorce by moving into a Florida housing community that is more like a Michael Crichton theme park.
Many of the stories are about alcohol (and occasionally, as in the brilliant final story, drugs). The opener, "When I Woke Up This Morning, Everything I Had Was Gone", concerns a hazing ritual gone wrong, but rather than being a moralistic depiction of the dangers of drink, it deals with the lurking presence of imminent tragedy in daily life. This is a theme Boyle returns to throughout. Some characters are spared, as with the couple in "Chicxulub," who believe their daughter has died in an accident, only to find it's a case of mistaken identity; on other occasions disaster is played for comedy (Boyle is one of very few writers who could make an alligator eating a baby hilarious). Hanging over the whole collection is the threat not only of death but, when the right comet hits the world, the extinction of the human species.
Boyle has one of his characters argue that while "death cancels our individuality... ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny and... that, in the absence of God, is what allows us to accept the death of the individual", before questioning what would happen to society and culture if we accepted the existence of man was finite.
This is seriously disturbing stuff, but he tempers such nihilistic thinking with a modern-day "Chicken Little" story called "Blinded by the Light" in which a character from California arrives in Punt Arenas to lectures a family about the dangers of sunlight, insisting it will drive their animals blind and give the farmhands skin cancer. He hands out dark glasses to everyone and becomes close to the narrator's daughter, who starts dressing in black and staying indoors. In taking extreme measures to get rid of this doomsayer, Boyle points out how tedious end of the species talk can become.
Boyle never reveals whether he is closer to the nihilistic characters in his stories, or those just trying to get by and stay out of the pubs until at least five in the afternoon, but his authorial voice has a warm humanity that separates him from authors such as Chuck Palahniuk or David Means. This is a truly satisfying collection of short stories, recommended as strongly to first-timers as to fans.
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