Tooth and Claw by T.C. Boyle

12/02/06, The Daily Telegraph

The civilising process is against nature. Almost every single act or behaviour that defines humans as civilized – from agriculture to the use of deodorants – can be seen as a bulwark that either keeps roiling, untamed nature outside the defence walls or methodises and manicures it for our purposes. Hence the paradox of man finding himself at war with the very matrix in which he is embedded. It is our oldest, most unremitting, and most interminable war. The exhaustingly prolific T.C. Boyle has made this the core of his latest collection of stories, Tooth and Claw, as if in response to his nation’s much-publicised war on nature on several fronts; prick your ears and you will be able to hear, just about, its sub-audible admonitory murmur, where the almighty indifference and majestic cruelty of nature foil human plans, ruin lives, blight loves.
     Indeed, the collection is a gloomy catalogue of broken dreams, unfulfilled hopes, soured ideals, lives run into sand. More often than not, it is nature that has wrought this blight, literally so in ‘Swept Away’, where an ornithologist is blown away by a frenzied, howling wind in the Shetlands, bringing to a premature end the only instance of love in the life of sheep-farmer Robbie Baikie. The literalism cumulatively becomes problematic: in ‘The Swift Passage of the Animals’, a freak blizzard in Southern California nips a burgeoning courtship in the bud; in the title story, the presence of a serval, ‘thirty-five pounds of muscle and quicker than a snake’, in an apartment in urban California has exactly the same effect on the incipient romance of Daria and Junior; in ‘Jubilation’, a painstakingly confected housing community built in the swamps and marshes of Florida by banishing its natural denizens begins to crumble once those natural elements – mosquitoes, alligators – prove more resilient and refractory than the glitzy marketing brochure gave it out to be understood. By this juncture, you have really, really got the point and you want the sledgehammer of Boyle’s storytelling to peter out, too, like the lives of his bums and alcoholics.
     Which brings us to the absurd preponderance of alcoholics and lives ruined by alcohol in the book. Who needs nature to drive a spanner in the works when alcohol more than does the job? There’s so much drinking going on in the stories (‘When I Woke Up This Morning, Everything I Had Was Gone’, ‘Here Comes’, ‘Chicxulub’), by the time you’re halfway through the book, that twitch you develop is for Alka-Seltzer, not narrative variety.
     Boyle, of course, is a dazzlingly stylish writer and the stories begin by injecting an unease under the skin of the reader; an unease that is both existential, in its meditation on our place in the environing world, and also carrying an additional charge of gloomy prognosis, in its revelation of what lies in store for most lives once they’re past the halfway mark. But this is soon dispelled as all the formidable and massed forces of his dancing, soaring prose cannot keep away the heavy air of unvaried sameness that starts descending before long. Most of the stories are first-person narrations but one can hardly wedge a cigarette paper between the writer’s and the narrators’ voices; all continue in an undifferentiated, over-eloquent, literary patter. Is this a crisis in realism or just laziness, an inability to empathise?
     The crisis may well have something to do with the craft of story-telling. The torque that keeps a short story spinning inside the reader’s head long after the book is closed is indeterminacy, open-endedness, a silence, even. Boyle’s stories, despite vigorously exercising that other textbook topos – the twist at the end of the tale – are neat, over-finished jobs, with unidimensional closures. The hidden folds in which interpretations hide have been flattened out. In ‘The Swift Passage of the Animals’, we know that Ontario is less than impressed with Zach’s foolhardiness and mistakes that lead them to that life-threatening exposure to a vicious snowstorm. It is oversignalling to have Zach’s kicking himself reiterated endlessly, but unforgivable to bludgeon the utterly predictable outcome into us, as it does, with the last line. Tooth and Claw is undeniably readable, but nothing new about either civilization or nature marks it.