Wild Child, By T C Boyle

Stories of potency, fire and lucidity

There's an irony in the titular tale of T C Boyle's exuberant ninth collection of short stories. "Wild Child" concerns a feral boy captured in the forests of France at the end of the 18th century. Subjected to a civilising regime by Parisian intellectuals agog over the incarnation of Rousseau's noble savage, the boy stubbornly resists, causing mayhem with his uninhibited behaviour. But the story remains flat, braced with the pithy observations and languid descriptions characteristic of Boyle's craft, but lacking his usual psychological edginess and moral purchase.

Happily the other 13 fictions here, pretty much without exception, manifest all his compressed wildness and adrenalin as a writer. In "The Lie", a harried young father spins a big, hazardous lie to skive off work. But even this, with its denouement visible from afar, is a strong story with its own emotional gravity.

Several tales are excellent. "Bulletproof" explores the simmering antagonism in a town, barely 40 miles upriver from Manhattan, that finds the sentimental lunacy of Creationism leaching into its school. Boyle's succinct sketch of the ethical skirmish quickens the blood before wrong-footing the reader with his divorced narrator's motivations. "Anacapa" plays a similar clever trick. One of two old college buddies on a fishing trip prepares to tackle a lout who verbally assaults the boat's bikini-clad deckhand. Pride, face, courage, doubt, neediness all moil together in Boyle's sharply savourful prose, drawing a fiery response that often, as in this tale, is doused in the underlying bitterness of character or circumstance.

A cloned dog-sitter's disloyalty, a baseball star's kidnapped mother, an alcoholic's coercion of his teenage daughter – Boyle's diverse material gains potency from the queasy situations into which he forces his flawed protagonists. His lucid, economical style gives depth and texture to character and plot. This volume, with its flotsam of poor decisions and misfired lives, has the feel of being considerably more than the sum of its dishevelled parts.