T. Coraghessan Boyle and Me

When prepping for my trip to “the Hostess City of the South” to hear T. Coraghessan Boyle read at the Savannah Book Festival, I searched high and low (literally) for my copy of his short story collection Greasy Lake to get him to autograph it. Oh, I own probably two-thirds of the thirty-one books he has published, but I especially wanted his signature on Greasy Lake because it is stained with my blood, now a brown smear after thirty-eight years of residence on page whatever. 

It had been in my hand when I stood up in the back of a pick-up truck to tell the driver Larry Howland he needed to turn right, which he did suddenly, catapulting me Buster-Keaton-style out of bed of the pickup onto the hard pavement of Folly Beach’s Ashley Avenue.[1] When I stumbled to my feet, I was bleeding from my head and right hand. I must have picked the book off the pavement, thus the blood stain. Anyway, I couldn’t find Greasy Lake anywhere, not in my drafty garret, nor in the book-choked guest room where I keep my valuable volumes, like the one pictured below.

So, I took Water Music instead, Boyle’s first novel and a first edition to boot, probably a felicitous turn of luck for the heirs of the Moore Living Trust given that it will likely fetch a better price at the upcoming the estate sale, whenever that is – let’s hope not soon.

Anyway, I’m a huge fan, especially of his early short stories, manic riffs like this first paragraph from “Green Hell,” a parody of all those movies involving plane crashes and jungles:

There has been a collision (with birds, black flocks of them), an announcement from the pilot’s cabin, a moment of abeyed hysteria, and then a downward rush. The plane is nosing for the ground at 45-degree angle. Engines wheezing, spewing smoke and feathers. Lights flash,  breathing apparatus drops and dangles. Our drinks become lariats, the glasses knives. Lunch (chicken croquettes, gravy, reconstituted potatoes, and imitation cranberry sauce) decorates our shirts and vests. Outside there is the shriek of the air over the wings; inside, the rock-dust rumble of grinding teeth, molar on molar. My face seems to be slipping over my head like a rubber mask. And then, horribly, the first trees become visible beyond the windows. We gasp once and then we’re down, skidding through the greenery, jolted from our seats, panicked, repentant, savage. Windows strain and pop like light bulbs. We lose our bowels. The plane grates through the trees, the shriek of branches like the keen of harpies along the fuselage, our bodies jarred, dashed and knocked like silver balls in a pinball machine, And then suddenly it’s over; we are stopped (think of a high diver meeting the board on the way down). I expect (have expected) flames.[2]

Boyle might resent this comparison, but his early stories remind me of the early Woody Allen movies, inventive, farcical, satiric, hilarious.

Here’s one last example from “The Big Garage,” an homage to Kafka, where the protagonist B. fills out an application to get an appointment to repair his Audi that has been towed to a Kastle-like nightmarish auto repair establishment:

B. Takes a seat beside the Cougar women and stares down at the form in his hand as if it were a loaded .44. He is dazed, still tingling from the vehemence of the secretary’s attack. The form is seven pages long. There are questions about employment, annual income, collateral, next of kin. Page 4 is devoted to physical inquiries: ever had measles? leprosy? irregularity? The next delves deeper: do feel people are out to get you? why do you hate your father? The form ends up with two pages of IQ stuff: if a farmer has 200 acres and devotes 1/16 of his land to soybeans, 5/8 to corn a 1/3 to sugar beets, how much does he have left for a drive-in movie? B. glances over at the Cougar woman. Her lower lip is thrust forward, a blackened stub of pencil twists in her fingers, an appointment form, scrawled over in pencil with circled red corrections, lies in her lap.

The Savannah reading, which was well attended, took place in a Lutheran church. Caroline and I had good seats/pews, but because of the acoustics of the church or the PA system or most likely my defective hearing, I had a hard time making out much of what he was reading, which I could tell was a fine performance, complete with acted out voices from several characters and emphatic gesturing.

Afterwards, we strode over to a square a block away where tents were set up for signings. We were about fourth in line, and once we shook hands, I mentioned that I used to teach “The Big Garage,” and as it turned out a student of his had made a film from it.[3] We had, what I would call a meaningful conversation. He said he really enjoys channeling disturbed male characters like in the story he had just read “because we’re all such saints.”[4]

Caroline asked if he minded if she took our photo, and he smilingly consented. And here we are, I gazing up like a beaming schoolchild in the presence of Micky Mantle.

[1] It’s one thing to trick fate, but to trick natural selection is especially gratifying. Although, to be truthful, I had already procreated, my older son Harrison being just over a year old and my younger son Ned at the time nestled in utero inside of luckily not-to-be-widowed-at-31 Judy Birdsong.

BTW, I have immortalized Larry, who in his fifties changed his name to Buck, with this BALLAD.

[2] I’ve always been a sucker for razzmatazz prose, like this sentence from James Wolcott: “An orange Elvis squirted from a can of Cheez Whiz, the Trump of The Apprentice bent the distortion field of Reality TV until it fit him like a girdle.”

[3] Here’s a link. Tap on media and look under the column FILM.

[4] From an interview: “Some writers just write about their own lives. Well, I don’t want to do that. I want to have a really boring life. A quiet, boring life so no one wants to write a biography. I’m the only writer in history only to have one wife, for instance.

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