Novelist T.C. Boyle isn't about to take the end of the world sitting down, especially not today. Just back from a monthlong book tour for "Drop City," his novel of counterculture meltdown, he knows there's no time to waste. The battle's gone personal, and it's not about developers versus tree huggers or hippies versus homesteaders.
This time it's all about termites -- he points to a small cone of black granules on the window ledge above the back stairway -- and this living museum he calls his home.
Swarming insects don't have anything on him. After all, he's already faced down mildew, rot and a leaky roof -- everything you'd expect in a house that's nearly 100 years old -- but here the stakes are always high, especially if you're the custodian of a Frank Lloyd Wright design, and it happens to be the first he drew for the Golden State.
That Boyle, spinner of subversive tales about marijuana farming, illegal aliens and eco-terrorism, lives in a Wright house may come as a surprise. A tall lanky shape, dressed in black with red Converse high tops, who's as apt to carry on about drugs and free love as he is about global warming and declining sperm counts, he might seem more at home in a rambling shed buried deep in Topanga Canyon or the penthouse suite of an Ian Schrager hotel.
But sit with him on the back deck -- one of his favorite places -- where you might catch him one summer evening barbecuing a mixed grill, and you'll find a man at ease with his surroundings. From here you can look into the cathedral-like space of the living room or out into the brilliant green canopy of trees that surround the home.
"It's quite wonderful here," he'll tell you, as if you need to be told. "It's two stories up from the ground, and it's like you're floating in the trees. The overhang protects you from the sun, yet as the sun goes west, it can warm the area. It's a magic sort of place."
So who is this man, sometimes known as Tom Boyle or T. Coraghessan Boyle, who wears this home, this monument of aestheticism, so well around his shoulders? Like an animal trainer, he's been putting the Four Horsemen through their paces since he stepped upon the literary stage in 1979, and now nearly 25 years and 14 books later, he's got a bestseller on his hands in "Drop City." But outside his novels, he is, for sure, a carefully cultivated mystery.
Look at the author photos on his books -- silver ear clip, carefully coiffed Vandyke and apricot frizz -- and you'll be met with a formidable gaze and a beady eye. Strike up a conversation, however, and you'll be surprised by his friendliness. This is a man who can be expansive and guarded all at once -- not quite a recluse but close to one.
You're reminded of this as he walks you around the house, pulling out one key to open the guesthouse and another the cellar. Clearly he craves his privacy. So don't expect us to tell you where he lives. Let's just say it's a well-heeled Southern California neighborhood, known for Gatsby-like estates (mostly Spanish Colonials), gated entrances and a surplus of high-end SUVs and exotic sports cars.
He'd also prefer you not see a photograph of the house from the street. So let's put it in words: There's a redwood fence, a brick path, a neatly trimmed lawn and a line of windows with delicate wood muntins shaded by deep, cantilevered eaves. Nor does he want you wander through the private rooms of his home, and that's just fine.
Perhaps you'll find these restrictions a little frustrating, especially if you want to know more about the writer of such killer first lines as "I was living with a woman who suddenly began to stink" or "There was no exchange of body fluids on the first date, and that suited both of us fine" and such provocatively titled stories as "Rupert Beersley and the Beggar Master of Sivani-Hoota," "She Wasn't Soft" and "Killing Babies."
It only means you're left to draw your own conclusions. Did his wife -- his college sweetheart no less -- Karen, for instance, with the beautiful blond hair who greets you at the door, inspire "My Widow," the tale of a recluse who lives under a leaky roof surrounded by cats and the detritus of her life? Was the Hungarian puli, the little black dog with the dreadlocks who gnaws at your ankle (just be glad the other one's upstairs), model for the dog-woman in "Dogology"? And is it Boyle himself -- his parents, his childhood -- who plays into "When I Woke Up this Morning Everything I Had Was Gone," a surprisingly sad story of dissolution and poverty that appeared last month in the New Yorker?
While some questions must go unanswered -- you don't get to be as popular as he is without drawing unwanted attention -- he is willing to talk to you about his relationship with the house.