Wild Child

By T. C. Boyle

Viking, 2010 | 304 pp | $25.95

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

tc boyle

One could say that the stories in T.C. Boyle’s new collection, Wild Child, are all about forces of nature. There are mudslides, a feral child, wild cats, and rain—lots of rain. But other themes emerge in these stories as well—the fragility of our lives and how off-kilter they can become in the blink of an eye; the mad desire for bodily perfection and the way we navigate the world with myriad choices at every turn.

Boyle’s characters veer between being narcissistic and heroic. They stand knee-deep in their inner dramas, barely leaving them time to observe the outer world until they are forced to acknowledge it. Although the “hero” in La Conchita drives a vehicle which carries the liver for an organ transplant in his truck, he does not seem “noble,” but rather cocky and egotistical, as he swerves recklessly down the highway. It is not until he is stalled by a terrible accident that his compassion and humanity is revealed. Even then—when a woman whose husband and baby are buried in the mud begs him to help—he is, at first, a bemused outsider, viewing the situation with a sort of blasé humor. This runs through his mind: “…she was going to grieve, this hot young woman, this girl in the muddy shorts and soaked-through top.” Maybe this is not humor, but distance—the distance to notice the woman’s attractiveness, even during this natural disaster. However, he soon begins to claw maniacally at the mud, drenching himself and forgetting himself in the process.

In these stories, the collective unconscious is more present than the individual. Boyle is more interested in capturing the zeitgeist, rather than plumbing the nuances of the individual soul. Although the characters are given names and several stories are written from the first person, the characters tend to blur together, their problems emblematic of our times.

Boyle’s characters seem to expect a sort of uniformity of thought, and are surprised when the opposite view is presented to them. His characters are left-leaning, nature loving, recycling folk who are not exactly purists, but who expect others to follow suit, as if this perspective is universal and obvious. One of the strengths of these stories are when these characters—men and women alike—are forced by circumstance to confront characters with opposite points of view.

This jarring of sensibilities adds wonderful tension and verve to the stories. For example, in Bulletproof, the main character is amazed that his old high school is embroiled over a discussion of teaching Creationism in school. As he stands in an auditorium, crushed against the masses, (described as wet, fecund, excited), he finds himself next to a pretty woman. He just assumes, for no particular reason that she is on his “side,” rather than on the side of the “Bible thumpers” he so disparages. However, this provocative woman turns out to be the mother of a prim, “Bible thumping girl” who speaks up at the meeting. Unknowingly, the narrator even murmurs, “Jesus freaks” to the woman. Later, after helping the woman with her car, he begins to date this “Jesus freak.” The narrator is startled to be with someone with such opposing views, yet is also tantalized.

Similarly, in Question 62, a beautiful, melancholy story, the protagonist, a night nurse verging on the alcoholic, sleeps with a gun-hungry soul who shows up at her trailer trying to get her to sign on to his “position,” which is to make it legal to hunt cats. The woman, who is a vegetarian and whose husband was killed by a gun, is repulsed by the notion of killing cats, yet she still sleeps with this creepy stranger. Meantime in the story, her sister in California is “hunting” for snails in her garden, smashing them nonchalantly, when she sees a tiger stalking in her garden. The sweep of this story—from a tiger tripping over the grass to the cats lurking under a shaky trailer in the northeast during a rainstorm, is full of earthly delights and leaves the reader with questions, rather than answers—what are we responsible for, what are we capable of, when does our yearning gain power over our heart?

I have always been oddly drawn to desperate, morally suspect characters in literature, those who flounder and fall due to their own greed and short sightedness, such as Madame Bovary and poor George Hurstwood in Sister Carrie.

The scoundrel featured in The Lie also delighted me. In this story, Lonnie, a film editor, calls in sick only to say his daughter is terribly ill. Then, during the day while his wife, Clover, struggles away (his daughter is at the babysitter’s) he drinks and hangs out. Who doesn’t want to take the day off, and who hasn’t lied? And yet Lonnie takes things farther than most, continuing to lie, continuing to drink, and eventually entrapping himself. This story is full of skilled irony and dark humor. I wasn’t surprised to read on T. C. Boyle’s website that this is the story he reads when on tour. Part warning, part farce, I would love to be in the audience listening to this one.

Although the gist of the stories explores the outer world rather than the inner, Boyle’s range is still remarkable. He writes from the perspective of a fourteen-year-old girl, an older doctor, a woman in her mid-thirties seeking Botox treatment, and two historical figures—the 1950’s singer Johnny Bandon and Victor, a feral child in the title story, Wild Child.

It would be remiss of me if I did not discuss the story Wild Child. This story is about the life of a young child who was abandoned by his parents and survived by foraging for berries and old potatoes. Boyle writes in such a way that evokes great sympathy for his character. Although the boy has a kind-hearted doctor caring for him, he cannot be tamed of his wild ways and he continues to horde his food, defecate on the floor, and he cannot learn a language.

Like the “freak” child in Sin Dolor, all of France seems attracted to the “savage,” the “boy beast.” Wild Child shows how we are both enthralled and repulsed by what we deem wild. We want to be close to nature and perhaps nature can save us; on the other hand, nature can be a nasty force, uncontrollable, unpredictable and scary.

When the Wild Child doesn’t become the young genteel gentleman the state had hoped for, he is essentially abandoned. If we can abandon such a boy, what else on this earth can we so carelessly use and abandon? In this collection, Boyle discusses these timely issues—what we can save, what we can give up, and what will always be sacredly wild.

Sally Cobau is a writer and teacher living in Lincoln, Nebraska.

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