On the Recent Immortalization of T.C. Boyle


I’m halfway through T.C. Boyle’s 2003 novel Drop City right now — and while it might not be a book that many people particularly remember, it’s reminding me of why he remains one of my absolute favorites.

Which is pretty good timing, because it was just a few months ago that Boyle placed his archive — letters, notes, drafts, all the good stuff — with the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin, taking a new step into literary immortality. Sweet, I say; he deserves it. For plenty of reasons, and one in particular.

His prose is great, but there’s something more fundamentally deep about Boyle’s approach to fiction that ties him in with the very best of American writers. It’s his sense of balance.

And I have trouble finding good balance in a lot of new books I’m reading, movies I’m watching, or TV shows I’m almost never watching. Not that that’s too surprising.

A story with good balance, a weirdly kind of pure balance, overcomes the urge to simplify a character or theme for the fleeting benefit of another character or theme. To give in to that urge — which is in many ways more a societal one than a personal one — is to do so entirely for the superficially engaging effect it has on many readers.

When I say this I’m thinking of novels written under the guise of literary fiction, but which are more concerned with offering up appropriately plucky or evil characters and emotionally-infused snapshots than truly dissecting the issue at hand. I’m thinking of a movie like Avatar, which retold an incredibly basic, trope-filled story (I remember it most distinctly as that of Disney’s Pocahontas, though its roots are certainly much, much older) using special effects that served only to highlight its narrative simplicity. No one calls it good art, but it’s always successful from a commercial standpoint because it does a wonderful job of catering to lazy minds. That’s why we see so much of it and will never make the effort to complain, even when we really can see it for what it is

Which brings me back to Boyle. He doesn’t have that problem. While his work is, I think, extremely accessible to any reader with a pulse, he always seems somehow to float above his themes rather than becoming trapped in their prejudicial catches — like Lester Young floating above Coleman Hawkins, stealing his scene, playing in a universally swinging style that always outclassed the plodding machismo.

What I mean is that T.C. Boyle addresses the many facets of his novelistic world — and, as a result, the real world — rather than just acknowledging them, patronizing them or ironically nodding to them. This is a trait shared by only a few other living authors — one of whom, Don DeLilo, he’ll been sitting alongside in archival form at the Harry Ransom Center — and (from a critical standpoint, at least) it never gets old.

If there’s a work to mention in such a quick burst of praise, maybe it’s The Tortilla Curtain, in which Boyle brought us deeply in touch with much more than the simple personalities of an illegal Mexican immigrant and a privileged white American in California; he challenged us to question the impulses and inner reasoning of both, while confronting us directly with the sheer human impact of each one on the other. It was about much more than just about guilt or shame or pride, which sell well in their most shallow forms but don’t draw much real thought from a reader.

I still remember reading the last page of The Tortilla Curtain — that ultimate moment when, amidst the flood that’s sweeping the city away, Cándido grasps Delaney by the hand to save him from the rushing, killing tide of nature. After watching Boyle treat the two characters with an eye that didn’t stop piercing until it reached the bare humanity, the equality of both — the deepest balance — I felt Boyle completing a truly extraordinary thought. I can still picture it now, like a perfect dream you just happen to have remembered in the most vivid detail.

The strange, penetrating, affecting visions have continued, up through his most recent novel, When the Killing’s Done; and I’m pretty sure he’s still got a few good ones left. At the very least, it’s nice to know that one of the most vital writers to have helped thrust us from the 20th to 21st centuries will have a safe archival resting place, fit for the perusal of scholars many years from now. Those researchers and essayists of the future will find in Boyle’s work some damning portraits of the world in which he lived, and maybe some decent ones as well — they will see both, at every turn, forever spinning about an invisible axis held together by unshakable balance.

And read T.C. Boyle’s own thoughts on moving his archive in The New Yorker.


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