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Of Frogs and Swains

T.C. BOYLE STORIES: The Collected Stories of T. Coraghessan Boyle;\o7 By T. Coraghessan Boyle\f7 ; \o7 (Viking: 694 pp., $35)\f7

November 22, 1998|HERBERT GOLD | Herbert Gold's most recent novel, "'She Took My Arm as if She Loved Me," has been reissued in paperback (St. Martin's Press)

Laughing out loud while reading is a practice I've never developed--especially at writing designed to be comical--but somehow in the lonely contemplation of recent times, a couple of writers have caused me to frighten the neighbors with hoarse cackling. William Kotzwinkle's novel about the book business, "The Bear Went Over the Mountain," a fantastic adventure of an ursine creature hailed as the new Hemingway, is one. And now comes T. Coraghessan Boyle's monster collection of stories, most but not all from previous collections, forthrightly entitled, "Stories." Both Kotzwinkle and Boyle do the job of precise naming of the world while not avoiding personal feelings about it. The result is an aha reaction, a sense of: "That's how it is; I never thought of it like that; now I do."

And caught in the embrace of exacting intelligence, the reader laughs, because of course it's fantasy realism. Boyle's stories are grouped under the three categories of "Love," "Death" "And Everything in Between," which pretty much covers our experience, doesn't it? His stance is mostly ironic, but only mostly; there are also persistent yearnings: a young man's helpless need for love; an adolescent's metaphysical brutality about who am I, why am I, where am I; an American's wonderment at the miracles of this rich, distracted, dangerous civilization we have created. Because Boyle now lives in Southern California (he teaches at USC), he has a special interest in local doings. A number of the stories reflect the styles, habits and endearing New Ageness of a certain California.

"Stories" is a great fat book, nearly 700 pages, by a youngish writer making his claim to Maestro status. A few of the early stories (here comes chacun a son gou^t time) seem to be merely exercises, a bright kid sweating out a '70s-era Jorge Luis Borges infection, sharpening his knives in the drawer without having a great deal on the table to slice into, but even the weaker constructions (chacun a son gou^t redux) reveal a writer born to elegance and equipped with keen eyes, ears and a preternatural skill at evoking the objects of his roving interest. For example, Boyle seems to like animals and makes dogs an occasion. (Attention pet fanciers: "Heart of a Champion.") Because dogs are not every person's best friend,some of the constituency may belost. What carried me through the pet episodes was admiration for the operation. But other readers, major species fanatics, might choose them above the tales of misbegotten love, such as "Without a Hero," the story of a greedy spendthrift Russian immigrant who drives her American lover crazy with her wiles, her wetness and the wagging of her tail. When he thinks great sex is on the way, she coos in her enticing way: Should she put her money in CDs or mutual funds?

Another hilarious tale of male victimization is "Carnal Knowledge," in which a lonely guy meets a stalwart, long-legged activist, enjoys terrific sex but then is enlisted in her turkey-liberating raid. A dog named Alf, for Animal Liberation Front, plays a supporting role in this story, but that's OK with me. (I like Harry Dean Stanton but not necessarily as the lead.)

In "Descent of Man," the genial ape who translates Milton and signs apposite quotations from Yeats steals the live-in girlfriend of a fellow hapless enough to fall for a woman infatuated with primates. This story was published in 1974, which means the theme of committed female, distraught male has been engaged since early in Boyle's career. (Sub-theme: Animal nature is strictly contiguous with the human variety.) But even then, apparently awed by the power of a woman's obsession, Boyle suggests that the man deserves what he gets. And the reader gets the benefit of an ironic story: That's how it is, fellow lads.

Many of the "love" stories depict fidgeting in the grip of women who know what they want. I can imagine the dread word "misogyny" rising from a few strict bosoms out there, but wait--these women are allowed not only their wiles but also their charm and integrity. Some of the vision is not pretty but, on the other hand, it is pretty because it's funny, accurate and depicts the war between the sexes in the late 20th century as a trade war. The author of "Riven Rock," "The Road to Wellville," "The Tortilla Curtain" and five other novels, Boyle finds the intense, rapid-moving spotlight of the short story especially suited to his brigand's play with language.

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