The Great American Novel?: A Brief Look at the Work of T.C. Boyle

I’ve liked T.C. Boyle’s books ever since I first saw him perform at the UEA Literature Festival in 2012. I had just moved to a new city and had just started at a new university. I was excited, not just because of all the changes that had recently happened in my own life, but also because I felt as if I was now in the middle of it all. Whatever “it” was. A place where world-famous others magically appeared in packed lecture theatres to talk shop.

As I recall, Boyle seemed bored by the questions he was asked by the interviewer. Or maybe I was just bored with them myself, who knows. Anyway, Boyle proceeded to read one of his short stories. It was a life-changing experience. And if that expression has been overused to the point of becoming meaningless, so be it.

The audience, a polite mix of students, university staff and innocent bystanders, collectively leaned forward in their chairs. I can’t recall the title of Boyle’s story now, but it was about a man who invents a story about his daughter being ill to avoid having to go into work. Of course this turns out to be a terrible idea. By the time Boyle had finished reading the entire lecture theatre was whooping like children at a pantomime. I’d never witnessed such an engaged audience before and I’ve never seen one since.

This is how I want to write, I thought. I want to be a writer who moves people the way this guy does. Whether I’ve succeeded is a story for another day.

I’ve read many of Boyle’s books since. Most of them are loosely based on historical events (sometimes very loosely, and Boyle does not make any claims about historical accuracy). Many of said events occur at important moments in American history or revolve around historical figures such as Frank Lloyd Wright. Boyle writes Great American Novels, one could say, if that term wasn’t so archaic, patriarchal, white, and therefore problematic to the point of uselessness. It also does his books a disservice.

For Boyle’s books are anything but stodgy or boring: they are serious fun. They read like page turners but are significantly more thought-provoking than most books on the New York Times bestseller list. I always reach for them when I’m in need of something smart and funny but profound, something I could read on the beach if I wanted to, while also being challenged by the difficult questions it asks. I guess my point is that Boyle achieves readability without losing out on depth. Which, come to think of it, is close to my own writing philosophy, so no wonder I like his work.

Recently, looking for a brief escape from the ongoing pandemic, I reached for Boyle’s work once again and read two of his recent novels back to back. The Terranauts (2016), first of all, is a fictionalized account of the Biosphere II experiment. During the early 1990s eight researchers lived together for two years in a gigantic glass dome in Arizona. The dome contained artificially created habitats (a desert, a rainforest, a fully functional farm) and its residents were completely cut off from the rest of the planet (Biosphere I, in case you were wondering).

The idea behind this costly and slightly ludicrous project was that it would supply us with valuable information about human ability to live on other planets in the distant future. Of course reality was different and ended – spoiler alert – in a not-very-elegant squabble over money. Boyle, on the other hand, is more interested in what fame and living with seven other humans in a confined space can do to the human psyche. No good at all, it turns out. And because much of the novel’s fun comes from the wicked plot twists, that’s all I’ll say about that.

The Harder They Come (2016), on the other hand, is more of a character study. Vietnam veteran Sten defends himself against a robber while on a cruise in Costa Rica, and accidentally kills the man. His son Adam, meanwhile, fashions himself a reincarnation of mountain man John Colter and lives a not exactly law-abiding life in a Californian forest. His unlikely love interest Sara, furthermore, refuses to acknowledge any form of state authority, even if this causes her to repeatedly get into costly legal trouble over trivialities (such as refusing to wear her seatbelt).

In both The Terranauts and The Harder They Come, the unpleasantness and stupidity of the main characters often stands out. Sara, for example, refuses to wear her seatbelt because she believes she should be able to do whatever the hell she likes in her own property (her own property being her car). Of course she completely ignores the fact that seatbelts are lifesaving, and that is in her own interest to wear one, and that without a state there would be no roads for her to drive on in the first place.

Boyle’s novels are full of characters making their lives really bloody difficult for themselves by exaggerating their own importance and intelligence. For some readers, this makes his books annoying. For me, it makes them realistic. Although written and published well before the pandemic, Sara’s rants made me think of anti-vaxxers who claim that they don’t need to listen to scientists because they would rather do their own research (their own research focusing on questionable Facebook posts that only confirm and never challenge their botched view of the world). But I digress.

Boyle’s characters, like real people, get themselves in a mess trying, and this is what always gets me, to do well. Sara believes that she really is a freedom fighter, as does Adam, and he ends up truly wrecked and alone. The Terranauts think that they are at the forefront of science but actually spend most of their time either fighting or shagging each other. Boyle’s world view is certainly not an optimistic or pretty one. But in its darkness it is also, somehow, heartbreakingly funny.

And this is why I can’t help loving his characters, however flawed they are. Their self-inflicted tragedies represent the hypocrisy of the real world they are based on. In The Harder They Come, Sten and his neighbours constantly talk about the need to defend “their” woods against Mexican immigrants who they believe to be up to no good. A familiar narrative from the Trump age, right? But hey, Sten, your woods were never yours to begin with. Your ancestors colonized them. And those Mexican immigrants? Well, it turns out the only person producing opium in the local woods is Adam. That’s right, your own all-American son.

Although Boyle never explicitly says so, he seems to think that the true “dangers” that threaten American culture come from within. Hubris, a lack of self-criticism, and a selective misreading of the country’s history create a toxic breeding ground for racism, violence, and plain old bigotry. Why do I still find his novels funny, you ask? Because sometimes, faced with tragedy, all one can do is laugh.

Photo by Gustavo Zambelli on Unsplash

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