Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Catholic (?) Short Fiction of T.C. Boyle

We’ve recently been enjoying a number of short stories by T. C. Boyle. We’d read some of his work before (“Greasy Lake” comes to mind), but what inspired us to return to his work this time was that we noticed a story of his was included in a collection called The Best American Catholic Short Stories (Sheed & Ward, 2007). His work had never struck us as particularly Catholic, so his inclusion surprised us. We resolved to take a look at some of his work--which we're happy to say is much more enjoyable than looking at his publicity pictures, in which he consistently looks like the bassist for an 80s arena-rock band now playing at county fairs.

A couple of the stories were quite good, but their subject matter puts them out of the purview of this site. “Balto” and “1300 Rats,” from a recent The New Yorker. The former is a realistic short story; the latter is strange but not fantastic. It’s also the weakest of the bunch, as the narrator’s voice and knowledge is inconsistent.

The first story worth considering here is called “Killing Babies.” We’d had this in a collection (the 1999 edition of The Best American Short Stories) for some time and hadn’t gotten around to reading it because, seeing that it had originally been published in The New Yorker, we’d assumed it would be a pro-choice story. It isn’t. We’d like to write more about it later, but for now we’ll just say that while the narrator, whose brother is a doctor who performs abortions, hates the pro-life advocates who protest his brother (and these protestors are certainly not presented with much sympathy), the story’s tone changes suddenly at the end with a very surprising simile. We finally interpreted it as a pro-life story, but one with serious reservations about the pro-life movement.

The other stories are both from his 1989 collection If the River Was [sic!] Whiskey. “The Devil and Irv Cherniske,” included in The Best American Catholic Short Stories, is not a specifically Catholic story, but is a recasting of Washington Irving's moralistic "The Devil and Tom Walker" in a modern American suburb: a greedy businessman and father, frustrated in his marriage and his professional life, is approached by the devil, who makes him an offer he should refuse. The devil “wanted the usual deal, nothing less, and he held out to Irv the twin temptations of preternatural business success and filthy lucre.” Bless his heart, Irv initially resists the temptation. But His wife Tish, no pleasant help-mate, scolds Irv for being so stupid, and sets out to seal the deal with the Dark Prince herself. This does not end happily for her.

Irv eventually accepts Satan’s offer, and in ten years becomes one of the fattest fat cats around. But he wonders about his devilish deal, so “he returned to the church—not the Roman church, to which he’d belonged as a boy, but the Church of the Open Palm, Reverend Jimmy, Pastor,” who preaches the power “of the one and only God—profit,” and whose scripture is The Wealth of Nations. This new faith gets him richer and happier, but of course it’s only doing his soul more damage, and (like Tom Walker) he can’t avoid his fate, which we’re afraid is much less pleasant than the Washington Irving story to which the title alludes. (If only Daniel Webster were there to help!)

The next story in the collection is “The Miracle at Ballinspittle,” which is as irreverent as the title suggests. Two drunk Americans visit Ireland on a whim to see “the snotgreen likeness of the Virgin” which “was seen one grim March afternoon some years back to move its limbs ever so slightly, as if seized suddenly by the need of a good sinew-cracking stretch.” Of course, the vision is doubtful--at least in part because it was experienced by a lone young girl in the midst of a fifteen-day Marmite and soda binge--but that doesn’t keep the site from becoming a popular pilgrimage destination.

Still, it turns out that there is something miraculous about the statue, which suddenly statue calls out to one of the drunk Americans, Davey McGahee. The other many pilgrims watch as she speaks to him. He begins praying the Hail Mary, but when he asks her to pray for sinners, she retorts,

“And you think it’s as easy as that, do you?...Gone is the beatific smile, gone the gace of the eyes and the face is a gargoyle’s, a shrew’s, and the voice, sharpening, probing like a dental tool, suddenly bears an uncanny resemblance to his ex-wife’s. ‘Sinner!’ the gargoyle hisses. ‘Fall on your knees!’”

When he drops, a vision marches out before him and all of the other pilgrims, a vision of all of his sins. All of the alcohol he’s consumed appears in barrels. All of the women he’s lusted after, every sinful sexual act, all of the excess food he’s eaten, right there for the world to see. For two days.

When Davey awakes, he’s humiliated but surprised to learn that it’s been declared “the greatest vision vouchsafed to man since the time of Christ.” He’s also become an object of praise, veneration, and publicity. But as he’s receiving this praise, he is moved to move his bowels (hey, it’s been two days!), and when he does that on a holy site (oh, the irony!) not only do the pilgrims turn on him, but the skies open and his many sins fall down like rain on him, and he (like Irv C., though in less sinister manner) disappears…

The site becomes one of the great holy places of the world, but Davey McGahee is never heard from again. “Some say he descended into a black hole of the earth, others that he evaporated, while still others insist that he ascended to heaven in a blaze of light, Saint of the Common Sinner.” We’re not sure Davey’s like all of us—some of his sins are pretty bad. But the point of the story is to parody the sort of vision that we hear about, to turn it into something absurd and disgusting. For that reason, it’s hard to call it a Catholic story, because it demeans the notion of a miraculous vision. Then again, sin is real in this story: it is manifest before the world, made as clear to the world as it to God. It's just difficult to determine whether Boyle is also mocking this element of the vision.


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