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T. Coraghessan Boyle: A Punk’s Past Recaptured

With “World’s End,’ the author enters the top rank of American fiction

T. Coraghessan Boyle: A Punk's Past RecapturedT. Coraghessan Boyle: A Punk's Past Recaptured

Algonquin Hotel, New York City

Angus Oborn/Getty

IN MANY WAYS THE SCENE IS EXACTLY what you would expect. The happening novelist of the moment — bearded, idiosyncratic, funny and almost painfully articulate — is holding forth during lunch at the Algonquin Hotel, a longtime hotbed of literary hobnobbing in Manhattan. The room is sturdily elegant; the crowd tweedy and knowing; the maitre d’ wrapped in a tuxedo. But the novelist’s conversation — which does not revolve around royalty rates, agents or the eternal editorial shuffle at New York’s publishing houses — flashes an edge that cuts through the easy civility of the setting.

“You reach a point where you say, ‘What am I gonna do? Am I gonna live, or am I gonna die?”‘ he says. “How many nights do you want to be sitting in somebody’s apartment with the stereo blasting, saying nothing, at four o’clock in the morning?”

T. Coraghessan Boyle — plain old Tom to his friends — is talking about the period in the early Seventies, just after he graduated from college, during which he “did everything that was imaginable” in the way of drugs, including heroin. Though there was nothing privileged about his working-class upbringing or state-college education, Boyle regards that time as the height of his life as “a pampered punk,” a self-indulgent rebel drunk on existentialist clichés and detached from any past that might lend his life meaning.

“It fits well with that teenage angst,” he says now, laughing, about his philosophical pretensions, “where you want to die, and you’re hoping to die any minute now, but, gee, maybe you should have just one more joint or go to bed instead. Existentialism is perfect for that.”

It could be said that Boyle, despite being thirty-nine and a professor of creative writing for the past nine years, brought his punk phase to an end only recently, with the publication of World’s End, his third novel and a genuine literary event. Set in the Hudson River Valley, the area of New York State where Boyle grew up and lived until he was in his midtwenties, the book sweeps up 300 years of family and regional history into a swirling, panoramic narrative that encompasses the late Sixties, the 1940s and the Dutch community in the valley during the seventeenth century.

In its vision, ambition and the sheer weight of its achievement, World’s End is more reminiscent of the epic works of William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez than it is of most contemporary American fiction. While writers like Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis and Tama Janowitz focus on the tics of urban culture, Boyle seeks to capture something deeper than the present moment.

To help extend his reach, Boyle drew inspiration from another Hudson Valley writer, Washington Irving. “He wrote stories that are part of our mythos and our consciousness,” Boyle says. “I wanted to be a purveyor of myths about the area myself. I wanted to invent myths and use his myths and play off them. And talk about history as myth, too, and weave it all together.”

World’s End — which takes its name from a passage on the Hudson River that became a nautical graveyard — also represents Boyle’s effort to explore a past he was too self-involved to care about before he left the valley in 1972 to enroll in the prestigious Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. The seed for the novel was planted during one of Boyle’s visits home. “Every day I’d take a walk down to the Hudson,” he recalls. “The walk took me down this dirt path. There was a little historical marker by it. The marker said that the path was the one that Benedict Arnold had taken to flee to the British and get on the Vulture. I was just stunned that it’s still there — for 200 years people have been walking on this dirt path in the woods. It’s not paved, it’s not a tourist site, it’s nothing. It’s just a path in the woods. It knocked me dead.”

This anecdote about the silent power of history recalls a key scene in World’s End, where Walter Van Brunt, a disaffected Sixties type given to measuring his actions against existential maxims, literally crashes into the past when his motorcycle slams into a historical marker. He loses his foot in the accident — he eventually loses the other foot as well — and the incident underscores one of the novel’s central ideas. In Boyle’s words: “If you don’t know your history, you don’t have your feet on the ground. You’re not connected.”

Boyle’s growth into a sense of connection was, in many ways, no less troubled than Walter’s. He grew up in Peekskill — called Peterskill in the novel — and his father, a school-bus driver, was an alcoholic who died as a result of his drinking in 1972. Walter’s tormented search for his father, who had left him a legacy of betrayal and abandonment, propels one of the intertwining plots of World’s End, and Boyle, in fact, dedicated the book to the “memory of my own lost father.” Boyle’s mother, who was a secretary, also became an alcoholic and died of liver failure several years after his father’s death.

After indifferent experiences in grade school and high school, Boyle went off to the State University of New York at Potsdam. “I barely got through,” he says. “I went to study music, but I couldn’t hack it. I played saxophone and clarinet, but I really wasn’t good enough and didn’t have the discipline to do the practicing.” At Potsdam, Boyle drifted into a creative-writing class, but a career as a writer still seemed a distant prospect.

Unfortunately, when Boyle graduated, the draft and possible service in Vietnam seemed perilously more imminent. Despite his nasty habits and almost preternatural thinness — he’s six three and slim as a whip — Boyle passed his physical and was a prime candidate for induction. “I had no intention of going to the war,” Boyle says flatly. “I was a wild, radical hippie. But also there were various avenues out, and I wanted to go the path of least resistance.”

Consequently he decided to become a teacher. “I had never taken a teaching course, never even seen a child in my life, in fact,” he says dryly. “I got my hair cut, bought a suit and ran around to about sixty interviews in Westchester County. Finally got a job — now I realize it was through a connection of the father of my best friend. That saved my ass.”

Boyle then taught English at a junior high school in Peekskill for a couple of years. “It was a shock to me,” he recalls, “because this was a very tough slum school, mainly black and Puerto Rican. I had to rip their shirts, throw them against the wall, get physical. It was a violent, tough kind of thing…. At the same time this was when I started to get into heroin and hang out with all of those people. So I was up all night stoned, and I had to go in and do this job. It just about killed me.”

Having taken a creative-writing course at Potsdam and developed a fondness for writers like Donald Barthelme, John Barth and Thomas Pynchon, Boyle turned to fiction writing to sidestep the abyss and get his life on track. He published a story — aptly titled “The OD and Hepatitis Railroad or Bust” — in The North American Review. That success gave him the confidence to apply to graduate school. “The only one I’d ever heard of was Iowa,” he says, “so I wrote to them, and they accepted me, because they accept you just on the basis of the work. I could never have gotten in on my record.”

Curiously, Boyle does not fully understand what drew him to writing fiction. “I read comic books, like all kids, watched TV twenty-four hours a day,” he says.”I guess, looking back, I was just fascinated by stories. I remember my mother used to read me stories from the newspaper. I began to read books probably when I was eighteen or so, and it was just like a new world opened up to me. It was what I could do and what I should’ve been doing all along. I came to it late.”

At Iowa, Boyle took classes with John Cheever, John Irving and Vance Bourjaily, continued to publish and submitted the short-story collection Descent of Man as his Ph.D. dissertation. Descent of Man, which was published in 1979, established the ironic tone and black humor that runs through much of Boyle’s work. The title story, for example, is about a woman who works at a primate center and leaves her boyfriend for a particularly gifted chimp. In another the Ugandan president Idi Amin Dada is invited to be the principal exhibit at a dada arts festival in New York.

Descent of Man was strong enough to win Boyle a reputation in literary circles and land him his job teaching creative writing at the University of Southern California. But despite the positive reviews the collection received, it only sold a few thousand copies — which is not bad for a first book of fiction, but far below Boyle’s somewhat unreasonable expectations.

Boyle found the public response to Descent of Man “tremendously disappointing,” as he has with all his books — the short-story collection Greasy Lake and the novels Water Music and Budding Prospects — until World’s End. “Each book I put out, I think, ‘Goodbye, Updike and Mailer, forget it,”‘ he says, laughing, but not entirely kidding. “I joke at Viking that I’m going to make them forget the name of Stephen King forever, I’m going to sell so many copies. I would like to be a guy like Vonnegut for my generation, who could wake up people a little bit and show them that literature is fun and entertaining and also serious at the same time. So I expected Descent of Man to be in every pop household.”

Boyle’s populist instincts are perhaps best evident in his 1985 collection of stories Greasy Lake, which takes its name and the epigraph for the title story — “It’s about a mile down on the dark side of Route 88” — from the Bruce Springsteen song “Spirit in the Night.” Boyle says he was a Springsteen fan “from the beginning.” “I really love the early albums a lot, really related to them,” he says. “Particularly this ‘greasy lake’ kind of notion. I get the impression that Asbury Park and Peekskill were similar in a lot of ways. So that song was the departure point for the story.”

A portrait of the hard, inevitable choices facing characters — like the youthful Boyle and his friends — who “read André Gide and struck elaborate poses to show that we didn’t give a shit about anything,” the story “Greasy Lake” is simultaneously merciless and sympathetic. ” ‘Greasy Lake’ is more realistic than Walter’s nightmare,” Boyle says, comparing the story with World’s End. “Walter is caught in this turmoil of history and blood and inheritance. The narrator in ‘Greasy Lake,’ it’s more the proposition of ‘Just how tough are you really?’ You strut around and think you’re really tough, but, boy, there’s always somebody a lot worse and a lot tougher, and do you really want to go that far? That’s the proposition: Where is the bottom, and do you want to get there? No, you don’t want to get there. It scares the shit out of you.”

Having flirted with the bottom, Boyle has traveled a long way up. World’s End has brought him a larger audience, and his short fiction is in greater demand than ever. His two earlier novels and one of his short stories have been optioned for films. He now lives in Woodland Hills, an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Los Angeles, with his wife, Karen, and their three young children. He’s just begun working on a new novel, about “a Japanese man in Georgia.” “It’s extremely hilarious, but has a tragic ending,” he says. “I see it as a musical, maybe. No. I wanted to create a character who’s sweet and charming and whom you really love but who comes to a bad end.”

In a time when much American fiction seems cramped and deadened, Boyle stands committed to pushing the boundaries back, as he did with World’s End. “I don’t want to do something small,” he says. “I want to stretch as much as possible. . . . You think of these guys who burn out, and you wonder if it’s going to happen to you, and you pray that it doesn’t. I’d like to have a career like Updike’s — you know? — where you keep getting better all the time, keep changing and doing different things.”

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