Playboy and the rest of the world : BOOKS

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IN THE first story here, a fat American called Bernard Puff, sporting khaki shorts and a "pseudo-Etonian" accent, tries to pass off his dead Californian almond farm as an African big game park - elephant and all - to a trigger-happy real estate sh ark. The shark, who is called Bender, wants trophies to fit his young wife's interior decorating plans; Puff provides ageing animals for him to shoot. Bender tracks down the elephant, fluffs his chances and, together with his wife, who is busy complainin g about the quality of the animal's ivory, is trampled to death.

The story is funny, but not as funny as Boyle thinks it is. It comes stuffed with ambitious, showy images that don't quite work, like the elephant "rumpled and dusty as a heap of Taiwanese luggage abandoned at the airport". It is peopled with thin caricatures, easier targets even than Puff's clapped-out animals. Their demise comes as no surprise.

The next sliver of satire is cleverer - a yuppie couple, desperate about a house so clogged with possessions that they can't sit down, hire a terrifying "Professional Organiser", and are stripped of everything - but still it is predictable and without warmth. Boyle, who is American, seems content to mock his country's vivid strangeness, rather than understanding it like Thomas Pynchon does, while his prose makes the flashy but safe circus leaps that get his stories published in glossy magazines, and turned into a wacky celluloid like the current The Road To Wellville.

When he tries to be simpler and more sincere, making a hapless young single fall for a parasitic Russian in the title story, his over-confidence becomes awkwardness, verging on cliche. "I felt I'd had all the wind knocked out of me," recalls his protagonist when the Russian leaves. You begin to wonder if there's anything beyond Boyle's elaborate screen of similes to justify his reputation.

Then he starts trying. "Acts of God" could be by a different writer, delicately following an elderly couple as they chafe and spar through one more day of their long marriage. Through their practised rows and small routines they become real, even likeable - and all the while the sky blackens above their wooden home with the approach of a hurricane. The ending is benign, understated; it's hard to imagine Playboy publishing this one.

By halfway through the book, Boyle's characters are melancholy, not hilarious. "56-0" finds a huddle of bulked-up American college football players hoping to keep at bay "the world of pay stubs and mortgages" for one more game. When it comes, they're pathetic, not glorious: heavy with a disastrous season's injuries, they crumble, desperate only to avoid the record losing margin of the title. As the final whistle blows, the unhero lies down in the snow and lets the flakes bury him: "He saw himself workin g at some tedious, spirit-crushing job... saw himself sunk in fat like his father, a pale plain wife with two grublike children at his side, no 80-yard runs or blocked points to look back on through a false scrim of nostalgia, no glory..."

Boyle is using his wide writer's palette carefully now, rather than splashing every paragraph with imagery, and to illuminate a broad theme - the hor-ror of the modern everyday, and the need to escape it - rather than to show how smart and funny he is. "Little America" is technically as ambitious as the book's more showy stories, interlocking the perspectives of a predatory beggar and his prey, a confused old man who's got off his train a station too early - but it has feeling. Boyle captures the beggar's shift from chop-licking anticipation to disappointment, and the old man's blurry progress from pleasurable bewilderment to panic without losing sympathy for either.

With "Sitting on Top of the World", the collection reaches a conclusion of a sort. A young mother chooses the sun-dazzled isolation of a mountain firewarden's tower for the summer, thousands of feet above the "smog and roar and clutter". She clings on aswinter approaches, hoping the snow will hold off. But the freeze begins, and her little utopia is threatened by a stalker. Then the mood changes: the stalker leaves her unmolested. Is he actually her saviour? Boyle cuts the story off. He seems to have left his jokes about flab and enemas behind, perhaps for good - just as long as his film isn't too successful.