by T. Coraghessan Boyle
It's a real jaw-dropper and a conundrum of major proportions to have to
speak to three or four of my literary heroes, because my literary heroes
are legion. I could
name fifty before drawing the next breath, and a hundred right after that. And then, give me a quick nap, and I'll name a hundred more. Which is to say, this is necessarily a random exercise, so please bear with me.
The first of my heroes who comes to mind on this abundant and richly blooming February morning on the West Coast of the U.S.A. is Evelyn Waugh. I initially came across his books as a disaffected, terminally skinny, proto-hippie undergraduate at SUNY Potsdam. I wasn't reading the coursework, but I was devouring what subversive geniuses like Mike Hubinsky were channeling me, and somehow, luckily, I picked up Waugh. It was probably in the college library, a place that smelled of the formaldehyde in the new carpets and the unassailable funk of wisdom concentrated in the ancient books on their new steel stacks. "A Handful of Dust" is the Waugh title I treasure most. It is very, very wicked--and wickedly funny. Great suffering, hardship, and humiliation descend in cruel waves upon our blameless hero, Tony (remember the chapter called "Hard Cheese on Tony"?), who, in one of the great endings in all literature, winds up the captive of an illiterate madman in the jungles of South America--a madman who insists that Tony read him the complete works of Dickens, over and over and over. And why does this appeal to me? Because it is exactly like real life.
Next, we find a full-blown hallucinating dopehead of a terminally skinny
hippie, stretched out at considerable length on one of the used and
redolent sofas in the
gatehouse to the Osborne castle in Garrison, New York, where I lived a Wordsworthian (or Coleridgean, or maybe even De Quinceyan) life of long solitary hikes, contemplation, books, and dope. The book that spoke to me then was imagined by my enduring hero, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and it is "One Hundred Years of Solitude." Many before me have spoken of its magisterial blend of magic, humor, and history, so I will let all that slide and address one of Garcia Marquez's short stories that appeared around that time in the New American Review: "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings." This is the story of a decrepit angel coming for a sick child in a storm on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. The storm drives him down out of the sky to land in a very unangelic heap in the backyard of the child's parents, where he is confined in a chicken house, amongst the other winged and feathered creatures. The story is a sly (and yes, wicked) satire of the forms and strictures of the Catholic Church, and it places the miraculous in the context of the ordinary--again, just as in real life. And oh yes, when I think of that story and that book ("One Hundred Years of Solitude"), I can't help recalling the doggy smell of the stone gatehouse--we had three magnificent and magnificently stinking dogs at the time--and of the great leaping blazes we would build nightly in the old fireplace to keep the frost at bay.
Lastly, let us not forget Flannery O'Connor. I discovered her as an undergraduate (for an adjective-rich description of your not-so-humble narrator at the time, see above). I was in a literature class--The Contemporary Short Story or some such. And she, the most remarkable American writer of the '50s, was where she so assuredly deserved to be--enshrined in a fat anthology. The story was "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," and it remains my favorite of all time, though certain pieces by the Three Cs (Cheever, Carver, and Coover) give it a run for the money. This story seems to me perfect in its radical synthesis of the horrific and the hilarious. I've read it a hundred times and I still laugh aloud at the scheming and senile grandmother, the howling brats, and the henpecked Bailey, and find the scene in which the grandmother's cat (Pitty Sing) attaches itself to the back of Bailey's neck, thus fomenting the accident, both chilling and (yes) wickedly funny. What ensues is a morality play that chills me right down to the black pit of my black heart. Accident rules the world, accident and depravity, and I don't have O'Connor's faith to save me from all that.
In my own books, I've tried to keep a sort of Beckettian humor about the
grim things of our world, while struggling toward the light. Each book,
each new story, is for me a discovery akin to the discoveries scientists
make--only I'm discovering you and me and the parameters of our behavior
as spiritual apes on a chunk of rock in a universe so vast you just want
to put a gun in your mouth when you try to contemplate it. Enjoy Stanley,
enjoy Katherine and Eddie O'Kane and the irresistible Giovannella Dimucci,
the one sensible person among all the rest. I'll pass out the hankies later.
By, gotta go...
Copyright 1998 by T. C. Boyle. All rights reserved.
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--Sandye Utley, Cincinnati, Ohio
Last Page Update: 25 February