Saturday, November 29, 2014

Budding Prospects by T. C. Boyle

Why do I like reading Boyle? One big reason is chapters that start like this…

Grim, silent, dehydrated and disappointed, hemmed in by eight bags of clean laundry, miscellaneous groceries and three coolers of ice, we passed under the great arching portals of the Golden Gate Bridge, skirted Sausalito and plunged into the blistering hellish heat of Route 101 North. We had six dollars left--for gas--the ravaged exhaust system screamed like a kamikaze coming in for the kill, and a cordon of semis--STAY BACK; DON’T TREAD ON ME; PETROCHEM LTD.--spewed diesel fumes in our faces. Gesh lit a cigarette. I flicked on the radio and got fire and brimstone, static, and Roy Rogers singing “Happy Trails.” We were on our way back to bondage.

The previous day--the Fourth--we’d awakened sometime after noon to a barrage of cherry bombs and the tat-a-tat-tat of firecrackers. Startled from concupiscent dreams, I thought at first that war had broken out, made the groping but inescapable connection between the hiss of Roman candles and the birth of the Republic, and then snatched desperately for the glass of water standing on the night table. If I could just manage to reach that glass, there was a chance I might survive; if not, I was doomed. Sun tore through the curtains like an avenging sword, the sky was sick with smog and the stink of sulfur hung on the air. Straining, my fingers trembling with alcoholic dyscrasia, monkeys shrieking and war drums thumping in my head, I managed to make contact with and knock over the glass, and I lay there gasping like some sea creature carried in with the tide and left to the merciless sun and the sharp probing beaks of the gulls. My eyes failed at that point and I dozed (dreams of staggering across the Atacama Desert, ears and nostrils full of sand, tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth), until I was jolted awake again by the next concussive report. There was nothing for it but to get up and drink a quart of orange juice and six cups of coffee.

His prose is a tour de force. Terse, but abundant and rich. Like sharp sausage; meat, spices, and everything packed into a small casing, biting and flavorful at the same time. It almost doesn’t matter what the story is about, it is just a delight to savor.

But this time the story is good as well. Our narrator is Felix Nasmyth, a kind of everyman chasing a kind of everyman’s get-rich-quick scheme; this one based on the growth and harvest of illegal marijuana plants. Two thousand marijuana plants, grown in secret out in the California woods, each producing half a pound of marijuana at sixteen hundred dollars per pound. One point six million split just as many ways as people are needed to make it happen.

But like all get-rich-quick schemes, this one is a lot harder than it sounds. Difficulties abound. No rain, then too much rain. Animals and pests. Confusion over male plants and female plants and which are the ones that bud. Nosy neighbors, back-country hicks, and law enforcement authorities. With each new challenge, their projected harvest goes down, and their calculated profits keep going down with it.

At one point, Felix’s conspirators threaten to quit and leave their secret camp. And as he wonders if they will be back, Felix realizes…

They needed this thing as badly as I did--if it failed, after all the hope and sweat and toil we’d invested in it, then the society itself was bankrupt, the pioneers a fraud, true grit, enterprise and daring as vestigial as adenoids or appendixes. We believed in Ragged Dick, P. T. Barnum, Diamond Jim Brady, in Andrew Carnegie, D. B. Cooper, Jackie Robinson. In the classless society, upward mobility, the law of the jungle. We’d seen all the movies, read all the books. We never doubted that we would make it, that one day we would be the fat cats in the mansion on the hill. Never. Not for a moment. After all, what else was there?

What else indeed? This short reflection, and many others like it throughout the text, is key to understanding this novel. It is an entertaining story, but it is also a commentary on the capitalist myths that permeate the American collective unconsciousness. Felix and his crew get so wrapped up in them--so seduced by their promised but ever-elusive riches--that they drive themselves to ever more ridiculous extremes, desperate to protect the snake oil dream that’s been sold to them.

Felix is only able to create some distance, to gain some perspective, when he meets and falls in love with a local sculptress named Petra. Only in telling her about their misadventures does he begin to see how pathetic they are and how impossible their quest.

What could I say? We were losers, schmucks, first-class boneheads. We weren’t paying off politicians or reconnoitering the skies--we were too busy dodging our own shadows and setting fire to storage sheds. Chastened, I dropped any pretense of coming on like the macho dope king and gave her the story straight. I described rampant paranoia, xenophobia, self-enforced isolation. I told her of sleepless nights, panic at the first sputter of an internal-combustion engine, suspicion that ate like acid at the fabric of quotidian existence. I told her how Vogelsang appeared and disappeared like a wood sprite, how Phil slept with his sneakers on, how Dowst would insist that we change the hundred-dollar bills he gave us for supplies before we bought groceries, on the theory that only dope farmers would flash a hundred-dollar bill in the checkout lane. She was laughing. So was I. It was a comedy, this tale I was telling her, slapstick. We were ridiculous, we were cranks, sots, quixotic dreamers--Ponce de Leon, Percival Lowell and Donald Duck all rolled in one. When I told her everything--the whole sad laughable tale--she’d said “Poor Felix,” and patted my hand again. Then she’d asked if I wanted more Postum.

And then, the release. The realization that the dream he had been sold--the one he had actually fought to buy--was false, fake and destructive.

Now, as I watched her at the stove, the first splash of sun ripening the window and firing the kimono with color, I felt at peace for the first time in months. Annealed by the fire, shriven by confession, I rolled the cup in my clumsy hands and felt like Saint Anthony emerging from the tomb. I’d revealed my festering secret and nothing had happened. Petra hadn’t run howling from the room or telephoned the police, the DEA hadn’t burst in and demanded my surrender, the stars were still in their firmament and the seas lapped the shores. No big thing, she’d said. She was right. For the moment at least I’d been able to put things in perspective, separate myself from the grip of events, see the absurdity of what we’d come to.

This is not just the true power of confession, but as Boyle so wonderfully puts it next, the power of good storytelling.

If the best stories--or the funniest, at any rate--derive from suffering recollected in tranquility then this was hilarious. In telling it, I’d defused it, neutralized the misery through retrospection, made light of the woe. My trip to Belize? Oh, yes, I lost eight layers of skin to sunburn while snorkeling off the barrier reef, turned yellow from jaundice, got mugged outside the courthouse and couldn’t get a grip on my bowels for a month. Ha-ha-ha.

After this encounter, the rest of the novel finds Felix wavering between the twin pole stars of his idealized consciousness--the get-rich-quick scheme of the marijuana plantation and the almost archetypal love, home and hearth that Petra represents. He desperately wants and pursues both, but we’ve all seen enough movies to know that can only lead to him having neither. Indeed, on the novel’s last page, when this sorry fate has befallen him and he has to decide which direction to move with whatever remaining vigor he can muster, he fairly well summarizes the morale of the tale Boyle has told.

I don’t know how long I sat in the car. Ten minutes? Twenty? An hour? The wind drove in off the ocean, steady as a hand, the moon lay across the hood of the car like a cheap bauble. I was thinking. Of chinless Rudy, of Jones, Vogelsang and Savoy, all the stingers and stingees of the world, all the best deals, the scams and the hustles, and I realized how precious little it all mattered. Go for it, they said, get it while you can, early to bed and early to rise. Well, I’d gone for it and now I was out of work, out of money and out of luck. I had a trial coming up and no place to live, and I felt like an emotional invalid, like a balloon without the helium. I sat there, getting cold, and I thought of Phil and Gesh back in the apartment clipping away at the shreds of their yachts and restaurants with scissors that grew duller by the moment. Money, give me money. Then I thought of Petra. No, I saw Petra. Her hands, sunk in the raw clay, kneading it like bread, molding it, pulling the hard, lasting stuff from its shifting, shapeless core. Wet, yielding, fecund: I could smell the clay, I could feel it.

Love, if not conquering all, is at least the better gamble to stake your claim on.

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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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