Off to See T. C.
What does an author look like? A successful one, I mean. I suppose in another era it was the guy with elbow patches and a pipe, then in recent years we’ve seen young, attractive women often take center stage. The first time I saw a picture of T. C. Boyle, I thought, “Man, this guy looks like a writer.” The dark eyes, carefully shaped beard. The modern writer that is, ironic, hip, maybe a bit of a womanizer, a little arrogant when you meet him.
After seeing Boyle twice at the Chicago Public Library, my impression has totally changed. Tall and painfully skinny when he walks on stage, your first thought might be, “Hmm, bit of a geek.” From a distance, without the jacket-cover close-up to lend some gravitas, he could come across as a bearded Jughead. But when he talks, the image of that cartoon buffoon is immediately dispelled, yet there’s none of that smug “artiste” attitude either. The guy is down-to-earth, off-the-cuff funny, and – as he is quick to tell you – the only male author ever to have just one wife his enter life. Frau Boyle, as he playfully called her, even knitted the scarf he wore; not a pretentious artist’s scarf, worn like one would wear a beret for affect, but a scarf that showed the love that motivated its creation.
I have admired Boyle ever since I read East is East shortly after it came out. Then I went back to the early stuff and eagerly awaited each new novel (have to admit, I’m a little behind; still going through Talk Talk as my current train book). On Tuesday, he was promoting his 12th and latest, The Women, the story of Frank Lloyd Wright seen through the eyes of four of the women he loved.
The impetus came a few years ago, when he and the frau bought a Wright home in Santa Barbara and began renovating it. Boyle did several years of research, including reading Wright’s memoir. Boyle’s take: it was “as much fiction as what I’ve written.” Turning the finished manuscript over to his editor, Boyle learned of another Wright book coming out, about just one of his loves. Something similar had happened with The Inner Circle, his take on Alfred Kinsey. The movie Kinsey came out at almost the same time as his book. But in both cases, I’m sure Boyle’s spin is more insightlful and entertaining, packed with more wit and graceful prose than one man should be allowed to write in book after book. (Yes, a little jealous, but mostly grateful he is out there and I have found his works.)
Boyle read a section about Miriam Noel, FLW’s second wife. (The selection is available here.) The trademark details and humor were there, and while I’ve always seen the elements of satire in Boyle’s work, it struck me as funny when he called himself a satirist. Maybe because so much modern satire can be so lame: films that start with a great premise than die out, or the too-infrequently funny sketches on SNL that qualify as satire. But hey, Swift wrote satire, and Twain, and Boyle’s best compares well to them.
The second selection was short story called “The Lie.” This one took a little long to develop, for my taste, and probably would have worked better internally, read off the page, than spoken. The narrator is a shit, and given Boyle’s demeanor, it’s hard to see him in that persona. At times I had that antsy, embarrassed feeling I get when I see a movie or watch a scene from real life featuring someone making an ass of himself and not really knowing it, while everybody else does. (A feeling my own stupid behavior can also spark, making me feel like I’m back in second grade and struggling without success to haul my blubbery butt up the ropes in gym class.) The story might work better read by someone else; Boyle said Stephen Colbert had just recorded it for PRI’s Selected Shorts (download it here; it’s the second story). Now him reading it, that would work. And the story did pick up some steam along the way, and definitely had some laughs.
Boyle finished with a Q & A. He commented that he is drawn to messianic figures and the acolytes who surround them (Wright and Kinsey) or the people who try to build Utopias (Road to Wellville, Drop City). In the end, the messiah has no clothes, the Utopia goes dys, and therein lies the satire. But also the grounds for exploring the emotions and motivations of the regular folks who get pulled in by the power people and their promise-filled ideologies. On the subject of his work as source material for plays and movies, he said he has no problems with it, and said Talk Talk was being made into a film. He claimed getting into the head of female characters was easy, and he never felt limited by being a white male in his choice of characters. He’s an author; getting into others’ skin is what he does. For me, though, I still feel like something of a fraud if I try to write black or Hispanic characters. Women, not so much, since I’ve at least had long-lasting, intimate relationships with them, unlike with blacks and other minorities. But then, I am not an artist of Boyle’s caliber.
Just to show us how powerful his work is, Boyle assured us his novels “cure illness and dry acne.” I can’t speak to that, but I do know the power of humor to heal, and his work always leaves me feeling a little better, even if I have to confront some unsavoryness along the way. Can’t wait to read The Women.