Monday, March 8, 2010

L'Enfant Sauvage ... T.C. Boyle returns ...

Wild Child by T.C. Boyle (Viking, $25.95)
By Erik Harden for Book Serf

The ‘80s punk band the Minutemen, in its succinct and abstract style, once pondered a world unspoiled by humankind in its song Nature Without Man. T.C. Boyle takes the opposite approach to the matter in his latest collection of short stories, Wild Child.

These previously published short stories offer several tales based on the uneasy relationship between man and nature. Boyle takes an array of approaches – from mundane and humorous to horrifying and heartbreaking. And he packs an emotional wallop using a style that manages to be straightforward yet complex.

In “La Conchita,” he brings the horror and panic of being trapped in a natural disaster to life. Coincidentally, I was reading this story the week the earthquake struck Haiti. Although Boyle’s story is about a mudslide in Southern California, it was easy to imagine the shell-shocked survivors of the quake thinking something like the following:

By the time we reached the top of the street, a long block and a half in, all of it uphill, I was out of breath – heaving, actually – but whether my lungs burned or my shoes were ruined beyond salvage or repair or the finish on the car was damaged to the tune of five hundred bucks or more didn’t matter, because the whole thing suddenly came clear to me. This was the real deal. This was affliction and loss, horror unfolding, the houses crushed like eggshells, cars swallowed up, sections of roof flung out across the street and nothing visible beneath but tons of wet mud and a scatter of splintered beams. I was staggered. I was in awe.

And the story actually becomes more harrowing as the central character – a courier who delivers donated organs to hospitals – finds himself frantically digging through the mud to save the lives of people he has never met. Let’s just say the results are riveting.

“Admiral,” one of the funnier stories in the collection, also tackles the clash between man and nature, but with sharp sarcasm and wit. It’s the story of a recent college graduate who returns to her hometown and takes a job as a dogsitter for a $250,000 cloned Afghan hound.

To me, it feels like a cautionary tale of man becoming too godlike, but that’s not to say Boyle is up on a soapbox. He just lets the absurdity of two self-absorbed professionals insanely doting over a genetic copy of an earlier spoiled pooch unfold. At one point, Nisha – the dogsitter – asks herself:

Four years of college for this? Wars were being fought, people were starving, there were diseases to conquer, children to educate, good to do in the world, and here she was reliving her adolescence in the company of inbred, semi-retarded clown of a cloned Afghan hound because two childless rich people decreed it should be so.

Boyle brings the moral center of the story into sharp focus when Erhard, an animal rights activist who befriends Nisha, contends the two people she is working for are "arrogant exemplars of bourgeois excess, even to the point of violating the laws of nature – and God, God too – simply to satisfy their own solipsistic desires."

While this story is based on man’s best friend, I couldn’t help but notice Boyle’s fascination with creatures of the avian variety throughout the anthology. In “Balto,” the first story in the book, a man looks at a gull and notices "the way the breeze touched its feathers and the sun whitened its breast until there was nothing brighter and more perfect in the world – this creature, his fellow creature."

In another story he describes a widower like a bird stripped of its feathers in some aerial catastrophe. In the book’s title story, a parrot has a fatal run-in with the story’s central character. And finally, in another story a major league baseball player’s mother is kidnapped in Venezuela. The player, as it turns out, is a pitcher for the Orioles.

“Wild Child,” the longest story in the anthology, is Boyle’s take on the classic story of L’Enfant Sauvage – a feral boy found living in the French countryside at the turn of the 19th century.
Boyle breathes new life into the legendary tale that is based on the memoirs of the French physician Jean Itard.
Boyle, maybe more than any previous telling of this story, often tries to see things the way the boy – eventually named Victor – would interpret his surroundings and the attempts to assimilate him into the civilized world. When he is first being hunted by villagers in the countryside, this is his description:

A fire was built beneath the tree, the boy all the while watching these three bipeds, these shagged and violent and strangely habited and gibbering animals, out of the deep retreat of his eyes.
Boyle expresses man’s fear of the wild in the way the French country citizens view the child and his growing legend: "He wasn’t a child. He was a spirit, a demon outcast like the rebel angels, mute and staring and mad."

When the boy is brought to Paris to be studied and, for lack of a better word, domesticated, he fails to see the city’s storied beauty. Ironically, the child-beast views the City of Lights in very unflattering terms.

All he knew was what he heard and smelled. He saw confusion , heard chaos, and what he smelled was ranker than anything he’d come across in all his years of wandering the fields and forests of Aveyron, concentrated pungent, the reek of civilization.

Itard, in studying the child, hopes to unlock the mysteries of the question that has been asked by famous philosophers through the years:
Itard was prepared to carry out to put to the test the thesis propounded by Locke and Condillac: Was man born a tabula rasa, unformed and without ideas, ready to be written upon by society, educable and perfectible? Or was society a corrupting influence, as Rousseau supposed, rather than the foundation of all things right and good?

This is the question Boyle grapples with throughout Wild Child.

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