Having just realized it, I believe that the title of Boyle's latest collection of short stories is a sort of veiled reference to the initials of his own name; that is, “T.C.” and “tooth and claw.” And if it's not, well, no blood spilled.
These fourteen stories represent the author's seventh collection of shorties. His first compilation, Descent of Man, published back in 1979, set the bar extraordinarily high, but our man was up to the challenge. In no specific order, books like Greasy Lake and After the Plague and Without a Hero all bristled and reflected the wit and whimsical word mastery in the mini-tale genre, of a man performing at his highest level.
But this new assortment, while at times astonishing, presents us with a writer afflicted with inconsistency and, curse of all curses, with innominate elements. That is, it's hard to know you're reading Boyle unless you look at the name under the story's title. His style is so unflinchingly unique, rife with sardonic drama and tale-twisting turns, that it's impossible to confuse him with anyone else. Here, however, many of these tellings seem incidental - they bear his name but never deliver the promise of shattered dreams and broken romances and failed lives - all normally told with that glint in his eye that makes you smile at the reading of it. Anyone could have written them and how disastrous is that?
In his introduction - the device where a writer will typically cite another writer in defining the type of literature we're about to experience - he even grabs four lines from Charles Darwin's The Descent of Man. Is T.C. surreptitiously trying to tell us that his best work has come and gone and that we should return and re-read his short story collection of the same name? Or is he hoping that by reminding us of the brilliance he once displayed, that we will forgive him these sloppy pieces and allow him a passing grade? Whatever the reason, it doesn't work.
The opening tale, "When I woke Up This Morning, Everything I Had Was Gone," talks about a man at a bar meeting another man at a bar. One man experiences a horror in his life and he tells the second man about it. The body of the narrative is made up of this exchange. And then the last few lines of the story read: "...I was going to drop my son (he is tossing his young son to a friend who is tossing the boy back to him), let him slip through my fingers in a moment of aberration, and he was going to be damaged in a way that nobody could repair (this is beautiful, these lines, Boyle's revealing of the terrible things that happen in the world in such a simple fashion).
And the last line is: "It didn't happen. I caught him, and held on, and I never let go."
OK, fine ending. But in the past, the writer would have left the reader suspended - did he catch the boy or drop him? It's as if he took the easy way out, or perhaps, now that he's a little older and maybe has children of his own, he didn't want to write a story about a boy crippled because of the negligence of his father. So, this is a plot choice. Fair enough.
But "The Doubtfulness of Water: Madam Knight's Journey to New York, 1702” is about a woman's fear of water (essentially), and the thirty-page story - the longest of the lot - reveals neutral motion: not much happens and what does happen is written in such an inconsequential manner that it hardly bears the writer's stamp whatsoever.
The title story is about a man with a serval, a wild African cat, who loses the animal to another man in a bar bet (Boyle likes setting stories in bars, and why not)? James Turner, the main character, wins the cat from this other gentleman, and the story unfolds around this cat, James, and Daria, a barmaid and wilder than any animal James has ever encountered.
"And it burned in the cat too, because at the first click of the bolt it came to life as if it had been hot-wired." Boyle is describing the first time the cat's cage is opened and the animal is let loose to roam in one of James' empty bedrooms. "A screech tore through the room, the cage flew open and the thing was an airborne blur slamming against the cheap plywood panel of the bedroom door, even as Daria and I fought to force it shut."
n a couple of lines, the writer has revealed a world's worth of information - the strength and ferocity and atavistic nature of the beast.
But, in the end, though the story is pure and joyous Boyle - man wins cat and loses girl - there is not enough of this to keep the reader inspired from cover to cover. Even his last long-form novel, The Inner Circle, was a stone-cold bore compared to earlier works like The Tortilla Curtain and Budding Prospects.
So, we can only hope that the great one finds his voice next time around. Because, even at his worst, he kicks the hell out of just about everyone else who are supposed to be at the top of their games.