To some extent, that’s a sign of Boyle growing older; he will turn 65in December. Death, or the threat of death, is all over these stories – or more accurately, a sense of mortality, of time zeroing in. If his earlier work was marked by a gleeful willingness to take on anything, here his focus is largely naturalistic, even when, as in Dogology or Thirteen Hundred Rats, he pushes the boundaries of the believable.
The implication is that Boyle has little time for mere amusements. As the main character of Balto, a 13-year-old girl, observes of her father: “(F)or the first time she noticed the small gray dollop of loose flesh under his chin. It made him look old, worn out, past his prime, as if he weren’t the hero anymore but playing the hero’s best friend, the one who never gets the girl and never gets the job.”
That’s a telling statement, revealing, as it does, a whisper of vulnerability. And yet, the deeper we get, the more we become aware of an odd temporal dislocation: not timelessness, exactly, but more a blurring of the line between old and young.
When Boyle is at his strongest, as in The Way You Look Tonight, another new story in which a man in his late 20s discovers a sex tape his wife made in college posted on the Internet, this evokes a vivid empathy, of the necessity of acceptance.
“He was remembering the first time he’d ever seen her,” he writes, “… and he didn’t know a thing about her, didn’t know her name or where she came from or that they liked the same books and bands and movies or that her whole being would open up to his and his to hers as if they had the same key and the key fit just exactly right.”
Too often though ( The Night of the Satellite, Birnam Wood), his characters are more generic: twentysomething, drifter or grad student, marginally connected to the world. That was Boyle himself once – as per Up Against the Wall, about a young man who dabbles in heroin as he waits out the dreg ends of the 1960s – but it’s no longer who he is. And compared with Anent Riley, the bitter, aging writer in The Marlbane Manchester Musser Award, or the Peeping Tom protagonist of My Pain is Worse Than Your Pain, such figures fail to move us fully, or take on three-dimensional life.
This is one of the challenges of an omnibus: that by including everything, you don’t weed out the lesser stuff. All the same, I have to give Boyle credit for holding nothing back.
In Stories II we stare down 15 years of fiction, from the great to the serviceable, and how does it add up? “All part of the questing impulse,” Boyle suggests, “that has pushed me forward into territory I could never had dreamed of when I first set out to write – that is, to understand that there are no limits and everything that exists or existed or might exist in some other time or reality is fair game for exploration.”
David Ulin reviewed this book for the Los Angeles Times.