Saturday, April 14, 2018

Without a Hero by T. C. Boyle

I didn’t dogear any pages on this one, or scribble any notes in any margins. Normally, when I read a book, I do both, conscious of the blog post I will eventually write and wanting to be sure to come back and revisit essential aspects of my reading experience.

But I didn’t do that this time.

I could have. As I’ve mentioned many times, Boyle is one of my favorite authors. Someone I was introduced to in that 20th century fiction class my senior year of college, and who has stayed with me ever since. As I count them Without a Hero is the thirteenth Boyle book I’ve read. And as if this writing, seven more are already on my to-read shelf.

So why didn’t I keep notes while reading Without a Hero? Probably because I just wanted to enjoy the experience of reading it. Letting his delightful prose flow over and around me without having to mark the magic elements of its passing. Reading things that way is a treat for me, and Boyle is one of the better authors to do it with.

But now, as I reflect back on the experience, I find myself regretting the decision not to mark the passing of some of these stories. There are, after all, some real gems here. Filthy With Things. Without Hero. Sitting on Top of the World. And as I flip back through the pages, reading a paragraph here and there to refresh my memory, two slow, dawning realizations comes over me.

First, Boyle’s stories all have interesting, and sometimes quirky, premises.

And second, he’s much better at starting them than he is at ending them.

You could shoot anything you wanted, for a price, even the elephant, but Bernard tended to discourage the practice. It made an awful mess, for one thing, and when all was said and done it was the big animals -- the elephant, the rhino, the water buff and giraffe -- that gave the place its credibility, not to mention ambiance. They weren’t exactly easy to come by, either. He still regretted the time he’d let the kid from the heavy-metal band pot one of the giraffes -- even though he’s taken a cool twelve thousand dollars to the bank on that one. And then there was the idiot from MGM who opened up on a herd of zebra and managed to decapitate two ostriches and lame the Abyssinian ass in the process. Well, it came with the territory, he supposed, and it wasn’t as if he didn’t carry enough insurance on the big stuff to buy out half the L.A. Zoo if he had to. He was just lucky nobody had shot himself in the foot yet. Or the head. Of course, he was insured for that, too.

That’s the first paragraph from Big Game, the first story in the collection, where Boyle manages to introduce not only the lead character and the narrative voice, but essentially the plot and the climax, as well. And the ending, when it comes, although told in pure Boyle style…

It wasn’t panic exactly, not at first. Bender…

Bender is a client of Bernard’s, a self-made real estate king with a trophy wife and emotionally detached teenage daughter in tow. Earlier on, Boyle writes: “Real estate people. Jesus. He’d always preferred the movie crowd -- or even the rock-and-rollers, with their spiked wristbands and pouf hairdos. At least they were willing to buy into the illusion that Puff’s African Game Ranch, situated on twenty-five hundred acres just outside Bakersfield, was the real thing -- the Great Rift Valley, the Ngorongoro Crater, the Serengeti -- but the real estate people saw every crack in the plaster. And all they wanted to know was how much he’d paid for the place and was the land subdividable.”

...shot wide, and the heavy shock of the gun seemed to stun him. Bessie Bee…

Bessie Bee is an old female elephant on the Game Ranch, that Bender has paid a lot of money for the privilege of shooting. Earlier on, Boyle writes: “For her part, Bessie Bee was more than a little suspicious. Though her eyes were poor, the Jeep was something she could see, and she could smell the hominids half a mile away. She should have been matriarch of a fine wild herd of elephants at Amboseli or Tsavo or the great Bahi swamp, but she’d lived all of her fifty-two years on this strange and unnatural continent, amid the stink and confusion of man. She’d been goaded, beaten, tethered, taught to dance and stand on one leg and grasp the sorry wisp of a tail that hung from the sorry flanks of another sorry elephant like herself as they paraded before the teeming monkey masses in one forbidding arena after another. And then there was this, a place that stank of the oily secrets of the earth, and another tether and more men. She heard the thunder of the guns and she smelled the blood on the air and she knew they were killing. She knew, too, that the Jeep was there for her.”

...came straight for them, homing in on them, and Bernard bit down on his mustache and shouted, “Shoot! Shoot, you idiot!”

He got his wish. Bender fired again, finally, but all he managed to do was blow some hair off the thing’s back. Bernard stood then, the rifle to his shoulder, and though he remembered the lion and could already hear the nagging whining mealy-mouthed voice of Bender complaining over lunch of being denied this trophy too...

Once before, Bernard had been forced to kill a game animal, a lion named Claude, when Bender’s shots had gone wide. Earlier one, Boyle writes: “But there was Bender, stuck in a morass of dead black branches, trembling all over like a man in an ice bath, and the lion coming at him. The first shot skipped in the dirt at two hundred feet and took Claude’s left hind paw off at the joint, and he gave out with a roar of such pure raging claw-gutting, bone-crunching nastiness that the idiot nearly dropped his rifle. Or so it seemed from where Bernard was standing, fifteen yards back and with the angle to the right. Claude was a surprise. Instead of folding up into himself and skittering for the bushes, he came on, tearing up the dirt and roaring as if he’d been set afire -- and Bender was jerking and twitching and twittering so much he couldn’t have hit the side of a beer truck. Bernard could feel his own heart going as he lifted the Nitro to his shoulder, and then there was a head-thumping blast of the gun and old Claude suddenly looked like a balled-up carpet with a basket of ground meat spread on top of it.”

...the situation was critical; desperate, even -- who would have thought it of Bessie Bee? -- and he squeezed the trigger to the jerk and roar of the big gun.

Nothing. Had he missed? But then all at once he felt himself caught up in a landslide, the rush of air, the reek of elephant, and he was flying, actually flying, high out over the plain and into the blue.

When he landed, he sat up and found that his shoulder had come loose from the socket and that there was some sort of fluid -- blood, his own blood -- obscuring the vision in his right eye. He was in shock, he told himself, repeating it aloud, over and over: “I’m in shock, I’m in shock.” Everything seemed hazy, and the arm didn’t hurt much, though it should have, nor the gash in his scalp either. But didn’t he have a gun? And where was it?

He looked up at the noise, a shriek of great conviction, and saw Bessie Bee rubbing her foot thoughtfully, almost tenderly, over Mike Bender’s prostrate form. Bender seemed to be naked -- or no, he didn’t seem to be wearing any skin, either -- and his head had been vastly transformed, so much more compact now. But there was something else going on too, something the insurance company wouldn’t be able to rectify, of that he was sure, if only in a vague way -- “I’m in shock,” he repeated. This something was a shriek too, definitely human, but it rose and caught hold of the tail of the preceding shriek and climbed atop it, and before the vacuum of silence could close in there was another shriek, and another, until even the screams of the elephant were a whisper beside it.

It was Mrs. Bender, the wife, Nicole, one of the finest expressions of her species, and she was running from the Jeep and exercising her lungs. The Jeep seemed to be lying on its side -- such an odd angle to see it from -- and Mrs. Bender’s reedy form was in the moment engulfed by a moving wall of flesh, the big flanks blotting the scene from view, all that movement and weight closing out the little aria of screams with a final elephantine roll of the drums.

It might have been seconds later, or an hour -- Bernard didn’t know. He sat there, an arm dangling from the shoulder, idly wiping the blood from his eye with his good hand while the naked black vultures drifted down on him with an air of professional interest. And then, all at once, strange phenomenon, the sun was gone, and the vultures, and a great black shadow fell over him. He looked up dimly into the canvas of that colossal face framed in a riot of ears. “Bessie Bee?” he said. “Bessie Bee? Shamba?”

This ending, when it comes, as I said, told in pure Boyle style, leaves this reader a little wanting. That’s it? They go up against nature and get slaughtered?

But that’s what traditionally happens with Boyle’s stories. They are wonderfully fun to read. They consistently transport you, not just to another time and place, but to another mind, another way of viewing reality. They do that in spades. But, odd as it is to say, too often that is all they do. They don’t do what great stories must -- at least not frequently enough. They don’t transcend the chimerical mechanicals of which they are so ably constructed.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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