T C Boyle is a writer that I have intended to read more by since I read and loved his short story ‘She Wasn’t Soft’ in a Bloomsbury Quid edition in 1996.
A decade later, I was visiting a friend in New York and found the collection The Human Fly and Other Stories on a table in Strand Bookstore.
On the back cover it says, “His many and varied novels are part of the American literary landscape – but one of the best ways to appreciate T C Boyle is through his richly imagined short fiction.”
I bought it, and it has been on my bookshelves ever since. From time to time I’ve taken it down and pondered it as my next read but always put back. I decided to add it to my 10 Books of Summer list this year to ensure that I actually get round to reading it.
The collection spans Boyle’s writing from 1974 to 2004 and is aimed at teenagers “and those who remember their teenage selves.” Many of the stories are about growing up in late ’50s or early ’60s America, full of references to ball sports and classic cars, navigation of the transition from childhood to adolescence, the sense that your parents’ generation exists solely to rebel against. There’s a flavour of Ray Bradbury’s Green Town books mixed with John Updike’s Rabbit novels.
There’s also a queasiness to some of the teenaged antics, a grubbiness. These are stories told from a very male perspective about an era when being a jackass was a badge of honour. There are moments of transition from adolescence to adulthood that are also queasy. The award-winning story called ‘The Love of My Life’ made me very sad, concerned as it is with two people unprepared for the responsibilities of adult life.
Alongside the teens, there are characters that teenage boys are often fascinated by: the people who chase extremes, who vie for supremacy in the strangest, most dangerous or disgusting challenges; the people who exist on an edge of society in sharp relief to the compliance of most citizens. There are moments of wonder that turn sour with the introduction of co-conspirators who want to corrupt the awe because it makes them feel small.
Boyle’s observation is a commentary on human nature, most frequently as it is presented through American culture. He is sometimes affectionate and nostalgic, but more often satirical, poking fun at the touchstones of America’s idea of itself.
I wasn’t so taken with the title story, which opens the collection. In it, a theatrical agent looks back to the start of his career and the arrival one day in his office of La Mosca Humana, a skinny man in a faded red costume who wants to be famous. In pursuit of this aim, he lives in a mesh bag on the side of the Sumitomo Building in Los Angeles for two weeks, flies strapped to the wing of a DC-10 aeroplane in the Tijuana heat, and rides strapped to the axle of a truck from Bangor, Maine to Pasadena before jumping a row of 26 trucks on a motorbike. He gains his fame, but at a cost. It’s well-written but I found it lacking in something that I can’t put my finger on. Perhaps a lack of knowing who The Human Fly is as a person, making it hard to care about his story.
In comparison, I was quickly immersed in the second story. ‘The Fog Man’ is gut-twisting in its documentation of a late ’50s childhood. It is poetic at first, in the narrator’s reminiscence of childhood, playing in the mist that poured from the back of an army-surplus jeep, and the creeping realisation that the Fog Man is spraying the neighbourhood with toxins. The story moves on to memories of a school field trip to the new atomic energy plant at Indian Point that has replaced an amusement park, and the public relations that went into assuring local residents it was safe. Then things take a darker turn with the narrator’s first experience of racism, from his best friend and classmates and the mothers who call his mum to express their disgust, all in response to a new girl whose dad was African American and mum Japanese and the narrator going to a school dance with her. He is persuaded into racism himself, off the back of the bullying and embarrassment he experiences after the dance, even though he knows that it is wrong.
The difference in my response to these two stories made me wonder about how the order of stories in a collection is decided on. What made the author or his editor decide to open with ‘The Human Fly’? Is there a balance to be struck between a strong opening to a story that might make readers uncomfortable in its trajectory and a story about a quirky character that is intriguing but less compelling as a narrative? I think that, each time I have picked this collection up and put it back down again during the 16 years I’ve owned it, the choice of opening story is what has failed to pull me in.
Elsewhere, an homage to Beat prose that centres around a teenager who hitches across America at Xmas in order to meet Jack Kerouac, made me smile. I enjoyed the pastiche more than I have ever enjoyed anything I’ve read by Kerouac.
‘Achate McNeil’ chronicles the college experience of the son of a famous American writer. Physically, the father resembles Boyle himself. In other respects he could be modelled on John Updike or Raymond Carver. It’s a story about the impact of abandonment and the dangers of attempting to use your child to bolster your image. Achate, known as Ake, comes out of the events of this story okay. I liked its depiction of a young man finding his own way in the world and weighing up his relationship to his famous father.
’56-0′ is a satire on the all-consuming desire to win felt on a low-ranking college football team. Boyle conjures extremes of endurance from the broken bodied linemen on a team coached by a Vietnam Vet. The central character has three first names, representing his father’s three favourite NFL players. His college courses consist of four variations on the theme of Phys Ed and his lack of academic prowess means he has nothing but football with which to make his parents proud and to keep his girlfriend. I have no interest in American Football, but this story kept me gripped and entertained.
My favourite story in the collection is ‘Juliana Cloth’, a cautionary tale set in an unnamed East African country. A fabric salesman arrives in a lakeside village with an exclusive and captivating wax print cloth that all the women want for their kangas. His price varies from shillings to sex. Schoolgirl Miriam isn’t a beauty and enquires about the cloth at the point when William Wamala is raw with the amount of sex he’s had. She’s quoted a price in shillings. Lucky for her. Her classmates and other women in the village start to fall ill, followed by their husbands and the women their husbands sleep with. The people of the village believe that William Wamala is a sorcerer sent by their ancestral enemies to hex them through the cloth. Doctors arrive from the West to study the sickness, declaring it a new sexually transmitted disease with no cure. Only the use of condoms can prevent its spread. In a decision not so far from that of people who have railed against the wearing of face coverings during the coronavirus pandemic, the villagers refuse to “allow a cold loop of latex rubber to come between them and pleasure” and are “unshakable in their conviction that though the whole world might wilt and die at their feet, they themselves would remain inviolate”. Claims to personal freedom lead to communal devastation. Of course.
There is a lot to admire in this collection. Boyle is rightly viewed as a significant writer in the American literary landscape. I enjoyed reading this anthology and will one day, no doubt, read more by him. His writing is very male, though, in a way that is interesting to me because it’s so alien, but not compelling enough to make a hurry of my wish to read more.
Rating 4 stars