I’ve read a few of T.C. Boyle’s short stories before, but never a whole collection of them. Wild Child and Other Stories was amazing. Each story, no matter how short, was a self-contained little universe. I wish I’d had time when I was reading this book to write about each and every story, but I didn’t. It’s too bad, really, because they all deserve equal attention, and I’m just going to mention a few of them.
Where to begin? I suppose I should begin at the beginning. The first story is called “Balto,” and is not about a wolf-dog rescuing children from a diphtheria epidemic in Alaska (I had to google that—I have actually never seen Balto), though the movie is mentioned briefly. In “Balto,” a man with two children has a wife who is out of town and a girlfriend who is in town. He forgets he’s supposed to pick the kids up from school one day and gets roaringly drunk with his girlfriend. It appears that he is often this drunk, but not on days he has to pick up his kids from school. The story opens with the dad’s attorney counseling the older daughter, Angelle, about how there are “two kinds of truths, good truths and hurtful ones (1).” Over the pages of the story it’s revealed that when the father gets to school and he asks Angelle to drive the rest of the way home. She’s not old enough to drive, but is old enough to read Faulkner for school and instant message her friends, so I’d put her at late middle school, though I don’t think Angelle’s age is ever made exactly known. Anyway, there’s some sort of minor accident involving someone on a bicycle while she’s driving. The lawyer tries to convince Angelle to say that her dad was driving when the kid on the bicycle got hit, and explains that if she admits to being the one who was driving her dad will be in even more trouble than he already was. Angelle ends up telling the truth, and that’s where the story ends. That’s the problem with short stories sometimes—you don’t get every detail. But Boyle does an excellent job of building suspense and leaving us wondering why in the heck Angelle’s mom is in France and not at home with her family during all this business, and wondering what’s going to happen to the kids after Angelle does the right thing (or was it the right thing? We’ll never know) on the stand. The father, who I think doesn’t ever get a name, is obviously an alcoholic, and Boyle also describes his addiction and cravings really well too. But that’s all I’m going to say about that one. There are thirteen more to talk about, after all.
Next up is “La Conchita.” Told in first person by an organ currier, you know, like the guys who transport organs for transplantation, when there’s an avalanche on the road in the town of La Conchita, a small beach town in southern California. I just googled the town, and found that there actually was a terrible landslide here in 2005. So I guess this story takes place then. Anyway, the transporter (in my mind he looks a little bit like Jason Statham) is trying to get a liver to a hospital in Santa Barbara when the road is suddenly covered in mud and rocks, as is a good portion of the town. The liver gets to where it needs to go, I think, and the transporter gets roped into helping a woman try to dig her family up out of the mud. Good suspense and all that business here too.
“Question 62” was maybe my least favorite of the collection. It’s about two sisters, Anita, who lives in Wisconsin, and Mae, who lives in Southern California. Anita meets a man named Todd who is weird, and Mae meets a loose tiger who eventually gets shot. I never did quite get the purpose of this story, though it moved along fine. I was also very concerned both sisters would end up dead. Because Todd may have been a psychopath, and the tiger is, well, a tiger.
“Sin Dolor” is about a kid who doesn’t feel pain and the local doctor who tries to experiment on him. Enjoyable, but kind of depressing.
“Bulletproof” was kind of awesome. It is about a small town that’s having a creationism vs. evolution controversy and a man who meets a woman on the opposite side of the debate. I wanted to ridicule the creationism characters, but I found their reasoning fascinating, and I think their God is a good one.
“Hands On” was creepy, but as interesting me as “Bulletproof.” An unnamed woman goes to a plastic surgeon for Botox, and then gets kind of obsessed with her surgeon as well as plastic surgery and looking better. I’m not a believer in body modification of this type (both because I lack the financial means to invest in it and also because maybe it’s okay to just look the way the good Lord and genetics intended you to as long as you get some exercise and don’t eat junk all the time), but I can see how things can spiral out of control. And this poor woman is lonely and just needs a friend to tell her she doesn’t need to do all this stuff to be happy.
Next up was “The Lie.” Now this guy. This guy needs to grow the heck up. Lonnie is married to Clover, and they have a baby daughter. Lonnie is having a hard time accepting adult responsibilities and starts telling lies to get out of work. Eventually his coworkers think the baby is dead and they’ve given him a bucket of money. Obviously this is not going to end well for anyone.
“The Unlucky Mother of Aquiles Maldonado” takes place in Venezuela, a different locale for T.C. Boyle, but it deals with the juxtaposition of two different cultures, which he actually does quite often. Aquiles Maldonado is a pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles, and he’s been making the local folks angry with his flaunting of his American wealth. They decide to kidnap his mother, who ends up taking good care of the boys who kidnap her. I really enjoyed this story, though I can’t put my finger on why, besides that it dealt with something different than First World Problems, and that’s what a lot of the stories in this collection deal with. I’m not trying to make light of First World Problems. I have shit tons of First World Problems. But sometimes it’s nice to think about something else besides how I’m going to charge my iPad and my iPhone at the same time, you know?
I loved “Admiral,” too, probably because it was about a dog. Admiral is a cloned dog. Talk about First World Problems. The Strikers lost their beloved Afghan hound, and paid a lot of money to have him cloned. They hire back their old dog-sitter, Gretchen, recently graduated from college and without a job, because they want to have Admiral #2’s upbringing be as close as possible to Admiral #1’s, so their personalities develop in the same way. It’s sensible, because genotype doesn’t always determine phenotype, and Gretchen agrees because she needs money and these ridiculous people offered to pay her $25 an hour to dog sit, with medical and dental benefits. A European journalist, Erhard, tries to convince Gretchen to help him steal Admiral, but things don’t go quite as planned. Suffice it to say that Admiral is fine at the end of the story. Because I don’t like stories about dogs with sad endings.
“Ash Monday” is another juxtaposition of cultures story, this time poor Americans and well-off Japanese, living in the hills above LA. This one has a fire in it, and the ending is somewhat ambiguous.
“Thirteen Hundred Rats” is about a lonely widower named Gerard Loomis who decides to get a pet after his wife passes away. I’ve never been a huge fan of caged mammals as pets, and this story confirms that for me. I’m going to leave it at that. But I did enjoy the macabre tone of this story.
“Anacapa” reminded me of Boyle’s novel Till the Killing’s Done, because this one also takes place in/around the Channel Islands. Damian and Hunter are old college roommates who occasionally still get together, despite the fact that Damian kind of annoys Hunter. They take a fishing charter boat out but Hunter is hung over the whole day from the prior evening’s escapades. Not much happens in this story, though some fish are caught, and more alcohol is drank, and there’s a pretty girl named Julie who helps clean the fish and who kind of likes Hunter. Or maybe she likes Damian. It’s never made clear.
“Three Quarters of the Way to Hell” is not contemporary and doesn’t take place anywhere in California. It takes place in what feels like the fifties, in a recording studio in New York. There’s a booze and pot-addled singer named Johnny, and a woman, also a singer, named Darlene Delmar, and they are contracted to sing a Christmas carol. They end up hiding out in the bathroom for a while getting high, and then sing a lot of songs together. They think they sound amazing. I’m not sure if they actually do, but what matters is that these two lonely souls have someone to be with for a couple of hours. “She didn’t know what time it was, didn’t know when Harvey and the A&R man deserted the booth, didn’t know anything but the power of two voices entwined. She knew this only—that she was in a confined space, walls and floor and ceiling, but that didn’t make any sense to her, because it felt as if it opened up forever (238).” Isn’t that lovely?
The last story in the collection is “Wild Child,” and it’s actually more of a novella since it’s close to seventy pages. This one takes place in France in the eighteenth century, and is about a real person, Victor of Aveyron, who was a “wild child,” abandoned by his family as a small boy, and left to go feral in the woods. He’s eventually “rescued,” and Boyle’s story chronicles the attempts to civilize him, which are only minimally successful. The primary character, besides Victor, is Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard, a doctor who takes it upon himself to teach Victor how to communicate. Victor ended up at a school for deaf-mutes, despite the fact that is was not deaf, and mute may be an over-statement. This story was so well-done, and just made me think about what the right thing to do with this boy was. Would it have been better to just leave him be in the woods? Because “civilizing” him didn’t really succeed. Would more modern methods have worked better? Or were there other factors at play—was he autistic or did he have a history of head trauma or something?
I’ve always liked T.C. Boyle, but this collection of stories showed me how broad his range really is. Look at all the different lives and stories he tells here. This book is just over three hundred pages long and I found more to say about it than I’ve found to say about books that are almost twice that. I will definitely be digging up more of his short stories in the used book stores down the line.