Saturday, February 8, 2014

If The River Was Whiskey by T. Coraghessan Boyle

More short stories from T. C. Boyle, and this collection more consistently good than the last collection I read. Published ten years after Descent of Man, the stories reflect a more mature Boyle and a more polished style.

The opening salvo, Sorry Fugu, is a story written like the storyboard for a Pixar short, every visual image sketched and attended to.

Her presence was announced by Eduardo, who slammed into the kitchen with a drawn face and a shakily scrawled cocktail order. “She’s here,” he whispered, and the kitchen fell silent. Fulgencio paused, sprayer in hand. Marie looked up from a plate of tortes. Albert, who’d been putting the finishing touches to a dish of sauteed scallops al pesto for the professor and a breast of duck with wild mushrooms for his granddaughter, staggered back from the table as if he’d been shot. Dropping everything, he rushed to the porthole for a glimpse of her.

It’s a moment of suspended tension, masterfully built up to and perfectly captured.

There are still a few writing exercises in the tome--quick little sketches like Hard Sell, The Little Chill, Me Cago en la Leche (Robert Jordan in Nicaragua), The Miracle at Ballinspittle, and Zapatos, in which Boyle seems to only be working a particular voice, or idea--but here he keeps them appropriately short and doesn’t try to dress them up as anything else.

And there are some--like Modern Love, The Human Fly, King Bee and The Devil and Irv Cherniske--that are just fun to read. Stories with beginnings, middles and ends, worth spending some time with, but without any real punch or intent other than to entertain.

And there are some that don’t connect with me at all--stories like Peace of Mind--where I’m pretty sure Boyle is making some kind of point, but I am either too dense or Boyle is too subtle for me to understand what it is.

And finally there are those few that really deliver. True, honest-to-god short stories that read like the fiction that serious adults read. The eponymous If The River Was Whiskey is one of those.

So is Sinking House. In it, an elderly woman (Muriel), whose formerly abusive husband dies years after a stroke debilitates him, turns on every faucet, shower and sprinkler in her house, letting the water run and soak until the house is destroyed. It is an act of defiance, of independence, of exercising the blissful freedom that she had been denied for so many years--first by her husband’s abuse and then by the need to care for him. But the mushy ground threatens the neighbor’s house as well. There, a young woman (Meg) with a small child, an aggressive husband (Sonny), and a highly ordered existence, watches as the police finally come, turn off the water, and remove the elderly woman from her home, and then sneaks into her yard out of morbid curiosity.

Her feet sank in the mud, the earth like pudding, like chocolate pudding, and as she lifted her feet to move toward the house the tracks she left behind her slowly filled with water. The patio was an island. She crossed it, dodging potted plants and wicker furniture, and tried the back door; finding it locked, she moved to the window, shaded her face with her hands, and peered in. The sight made her catch her breath. The plaster was crumbling, wallpaper peeling, the rug and floors ruined: she knew it was bad, but this was crazy, this was suicide.

Grief, that’s what it was. Or was it? And then she was thinking of Sonny again--what if he was dead and she was old like Muriel? She wouldn’t be so fat, of course, but maybe like one of those thin and elegant old ladies in Palm Springs, the ones who’d done their stretching all their lives. Or what is she wasn’t an old lady at all--the thought swooped down on her like a bird out of the sky--what if Sonny was in a car wreck or something? It could happen.

She stood there gazing in on the mess through her own wavering reflection. One moment she saw the wreckage of the old lady’s life, the next the fine mouth and expressive eyes everyone commented on. After a while, she turned away from the window and looked out on the yard as Muriel must have seen it. There were the roses, gorged with water and flowering madly, the impatiens, rigid as sticks, oleander drowning in their own yellowed leaves--and there, poking innocuously from the bushes at the far corner of the patio, was the steel wand that controlled the sprinklers, Handle, neck, prongs: it was just like theirs.

And then it came to her. She’d turn them on--the sprinklers--just for a minute, to see what it felt like. She wouldn’t leave them on long--it could threaten the whole foundation of her house.

That much she understood.

Meg and Muriel are one, and what once seemed so inexplicable becomes logical and almost necessary.

The Hat is another one. Characters in a small mountain town--some locals, some tourists; all in conflict with each other and with their expectations of the lives they should be leading. A wild bear loose on the mountain adds some drama, but the inevitable clash comes over a woman’s winter hat, and an accusation of its theft. Boyle’s prose glows throughout, but never intrudes on the plot, and never makes you wonder if what is being described is actually happening or not.

Thawing Out in another one. In it, Boyle links the process of a young man (Marty) warming up to the idea of committing himself and his life to a woman he loves (Naina) to the annual Winter Solstice dip into frigid water that the woman’s family does.

The wind had come up and sleet began to rattle the windows. He brought the coffee to her, sat beside her and took her hand. It was then that the picture of her perched at the edge of the snowy dock came back to him. “Tell me again,” he said, “about the water, how it felt.”


“You know, with the Polar Bear Club?”

He watched her slow smile, watched the snowy afternoon seep back into her eyes. “Oh, that--I’ve been doing it since I was three. It’s nothing. I don’t even think about it.” She looked past him, staring into the flames. “You won’t believe this, but it’s not that cold--almost the opposite.”

“You’re right,” he said. “I won’t.”

“No, really,” she insisted, looking him full in the face now. She paused, shrugged, took a sip of her coffee. “It depends on your frame of mind, I guess.”

It certainly does. The story is tight, and Boyle’s use of detail throughout is masterful, painting pictures with just the right amount of paint on the brush. On a wilderness vacation together, he is injured in a fishing accident.

In bed that night they heard the howling of wolves, a sound that opened up the darkness like a surgeon’s blade. “It was a communication problem,” Marty insisted, “that’s all.” Naina pressed her lips to his bruises, kneaded his back, nursed him with a sad, tender, tireless grace.

As all young men do, Marty runs away from Naina, spending months apart, living far away with friends and strangers in San Francisco. When he decides to return, he is broken, and all his former connections have moved on. He goes to Naina’s mother’s house to see what has become of her.

Naina’s mother answered the door, peering myopically into the cold fading light. He could smell cabbage, cat, and vinegar, felt the warmth wafting out to him. “Marty?” she said.

He’d grown his hair long and the clipped mustache had become a patchy beard. His denim jacket was faded and it was torn across the shoulder where he’d fallen flat one afternoon in Golden Gate park, laughing at the sky and the mescaline percolating inside his brain. He wore an earring like Terry’s. He wondered that she recognized him, and somehow it made him feel sorrowful--sorrowful and guilty. “Yes,” he said.

There was no embrace. She didn’t usher him in the door. She just stood there, the support hose sagging round her ankles.

“I, uh...I was looking for Naina,” he said, and then, attempting a smile, “I’m back.”

And there, as a sign of Boyle’s genius, you really have no idea how it’s going to go, how the story is going to turn out. And that’s wonderful, because you care. Boyle has made you care.

And finally, there is The Ape Lady in Retirement, its premise more suited to a farce, but managing to be deep and haunting instead. Beatrice Umbo is a world-famous primatologist, now retired and living in Connecticut, but in her mind and longings she is still in the African forest with the troop of chimpanzees on which she built her career. And Konrad is a chimp she has agreed to adopt and care for in her small town home. Konrad’s history is unique…

Raised as a human, in one of those late-sixties experiments Beatrice deplored, he’d been bathed, dressed, and pampered, taught to use cutlery and sit at a table, and he’d mastered 350 of the hand signals that constituted American Sign Language. (This last especially appalled her--at one time he could actually converse, or so they said.) But when he grew into puberty at the age of seven, when he developed the iron musculature and cracking sinews of the adolescent male who could reduce a room of furniture to detritus in minutes or snap the femur of a linebacker as if it were tinder, it was abruptly decided that he could be human no more. They took away his trousers and shoes, his stuffed toys and his color TV, and the overseers of the experiment ade a quiet move to shift him to the medical laboratories for another, more sinister, sort of research. But he was famous by then and the public outcry landed him in the zoo instead, where they made a sort of clown of him, isolating him from the other chimps and dressing him up like something in a toy-store window. There he’d languished for twenty-five years, neither chimp nor man.

“Neither chimp nor man” is an especially revealing phrase because it seems that Konrad isn’t the only one trapped between two species. Beatrice, herself, struggles to assimilate back into human society, seeing the faces, smiles and mannerisms of the chimps she knew by name in the wild in the humans that surround and interact with her. At one point, she gives a lecture at the local university, and her observations of the crowd very clearly blur the line between ape and man.

As the auditorium began to fill, she stood rigid behind the curtain, deaf to the chatter of the young professor who was to introduce her. She watched to crowd gather--blank-faced housewives and their paunchy husbands, bearded professors, breast-thumping students, the stringy, fur-swathed women of the Anthropology Club--watched then command their spacem choose their seats, pick at themselves, and wriggle in their clothing. “I’ll keep it short,” the young professor was saying, “some remarks about your career in general and the impact of your first two books, then maybe two minutes on Makoua and the Umbo Primate Center, is that all right?” Beatrice didn’t respond. She was absorbed in the dynamics of the crowd, listening to their chatter, observing their neck craning and leg crossing, watching the furtive plumbing of nostrils and sniffing of armpits, the obsessive fussing with hair and jewelry.

Which are the chimps and which are the humans? Does it even matter to Beatrice? Or are they so close on the evolutionary scale that it no longer matters?

It went quite well at first--she had that impression, anyway. She was talking of what she knew better than anyone else alive, and she spoke with a fluency and grace she couldn’t seem to summon at Waldbaum’s or the local Exxon station. She watched them--fidgeting, certainly, but patient and intelligent, all their primal needs--their sexual urges, the necessity of relieving themselves and eating to exhaustion--sublimated beneath the spell of her words. Agassiz, she told them about Agassiz, the first of the wild apes to let her groom him, dead twenty years now. She told them of Spenser and Leakey and Darwin, of Lula, Pout, and Chrysalis. She described how Agassiz had fished for termites with the stem of a plant he’d stripped of leaves, how Lula had used a stick to force open the concrete bunkers in which the bananas were stored, and how Clint, the dominant male, had used a wad of leaves as a sponge to dip the brains from the shattered skull of a baby baboon.

And yet there are things that chimps do that humans do not, and that painful reality plays itself out over and over again as Konrad destroys and eventually dooms Beatrice and those who try to engage her in the way humans do.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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