Lucy and Todd

Posts Tagged ‘TC Boyle’

Outside Looking In — T C Boyle

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on April 17, 2019 at 7:28 am

Whatever you think about Timothy Leary, the guy was trouble. A pain in the arse for psychologists, for Harvard University, for parents, for Richard Nixon, even, who called Leary ‘the most dangerous man in America.’ Kicked out of academe, he led a series of communes based on self-discovery dependent on the use of LSD. The honesty and possible usefulness of all this went rapidly downhill.

This novel by the prolific TC Boyle is a puzzle. It deals with many themes he’s used before: small groups of people under pressure to conform, renegade behaviour in the search for truth and spiritual fulfilment. In his excellent novel of Los Angeles, The Tortilla Curtain, he explored the frightened lives of illegal Mexican immigrants. San Miguel touchingly portrayed an unlucky family’s desperate attempt to make a living on an isolated California island. The Terranauts was a lengthy story of men and women sealed in a biosphere bubble for a year. Boyle’s early novel The Road to Wellville was a comic tour-de-force about a community of health food crackpots.

The problem with Outside Looking In is: how do you write interestingly about people who are irredeemably dull? Boyle mocks the intelligence of the Harvard postgrads who follow Leary around like ducklings, particularly his insecure graduate student protagonist, Fitz.

Fitz is not much fun to read about. He’s a jerk, a psychology academic. He’s timid. He knows nothing about himself and he’s got female breasts on the brain. It’s a little hard to believe that he teaches at Harvard. Or maybe it isn’t.

Fitz’s wife, Joanie, is the novel’s real subject in terms of revelation. Not as well educated as Fitz, she works as a local librarian. But once the psychedelics start flowing, she becomes possessive of the experience and is up for anything ‘Tim’ wants to do. When the group is disgraced in Massachusetts and moves to a hotel in Mexico, Joanie starts sleeping with the other men. This is another Tim idea: use the drugs to break down sexual jealousy. Worked for him, apparently.

We suddenly see the reality of the endeavour from a woman’s perspective. And while Joanie is gung-ho for acid and all the other stuff that’s hanging around these fearsomely conventional would-be revolutionaries (beer, wine, cigarettes, pot, martinis, station wagons and pizza), there’s still a lot of cooking and housework. Guess who does it.

It’s difficult to tell what Boyle really thinks about the little communities he writes about. At times it seems he’s chiding them for believing that anything could ever be different in America than it is. But just as often he takes their side, a champion of the inherent value of weirdness and the contrarian.

But maybe these people are just incompetents. Where is the certainty that what LSD does is genuine? Does it just poison you in such a way that you think something has been ‘revealed’? (The brain is always trying to order things, no matter what you do to it.) These sad sacks never elided grandly into the world, or transformed it. They became parasites, mooching off millionaires, fighting with cops and taking menial jobs.

The richest and best imagined part of Outside Looking In is about Albert Hoffman, who first synthesized LSD in 1943, and experimented with it on himself and his colleagues. Told from the point of view of his lab assistant, it’s a virtuoso performance by Boyle – joyous, mad-scientist slapstick, frightening, profound and even erotic. One could wish that Boyle’s narrative excitement here could be sustained through the rest of the novel. But then the academics arrive and humour and joy, of course, are banished, no matter what pills are popped.

In the ‘commune’ novels of Boyle there’s often a capitalist intervention – a sudden realization that somebody’s got to make some dough around here. The upstate New York group decides to offer revelation and the ‘sacrament’ (LSD) to businessmen and bored housewives, for money. Joanie, doing the dishes as usual, is looking out of the kitchen window. A man appears asking a question that startles her but reveals to us the depth of this whole ‘spiritual’ enterprise: Where do I park?


(This review appeared in the Herald on April 13, 2019.)

San Miguel — TC Boyle

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on October 15, 2012 at 2:25 pm

San Miguel is one of the “channel islands” off Santa Barbara, California – the best-known of these, and the only one that is really inhabited, is Catalina; another, San Nicolas, was the setting of Island Of The Blue Dolphins, the prize-winning children’s book of the 1960s.

Having said that, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, several of these tall, beautiful and terribly windswept isles were sketchily inhabited by some fishermen and, more particularly, sheep ranchers. TC Boyle’s intriguing novel (loosely based, it seems, on several memoirs of the place) takes this as its subject: two or three generations of several families that managed to scrape a living, at too high a price, off San Miguel island.

The high winds in the Santa Barbara Channel drove many ships aground on San Miguel – it was known as the Graveyard of the Pacific. It’s also a wrecker of marriages, women and sanity. The first family to arrive there in the story is that of Captain Will Waters, an injured veteran of the Civil War. With him are his wife, Marantha, and stepdaughter Edith.

Marantha is tubercular and has been persuaded to leave San Francisco for the healthier air of the island, although it turns out it is hardly that. The house they arrive at is a ruin, and Marantha becomes a martyr to it. Edith is a booky girl with a passion for the gothic who gets more than she bargained for as her life becomes something out of one of her novels: Lawrencian games with a farm hand and wicked stepfather to boot.

Edith tries many times to escape her life – you feel her frantic panic and it’s very effective. When she finally succeeds, it’s part of the literary aplomb of this book that she more or less disappears from it: Boyle is determined to root the story’s consciousness firmly on the island and in its particular brand of grimness. The narration is achieved from the point of view of three women and you huddle there with them.
It is a very immediate book: you will feel a lot of physical pain in reading it. Not only that of illness and heartache but literally from the effort involved in walking up a hill of mud to the house, in chopping wood, butchering lambs and shifting rocks. In watching the Waters family mend and decorate their cheerless new domain, you learn almost everything about them – it would be a good idea if we had to watch all characters in novels build their own houses.

About 25 years after the Waters family has disintegrated, another veteran, this time of the First World War, brings his wife to the island in a haze of champagne and Babbitt-like big talk. Why, you wonder, do men get so excited about this place?

This time there is an acceptable house, built by Captain Waters before he died, but the problems of remoteness and the weather attack Herbie and Elise Lester the same way. They try to educate their daughters on the island but as the Great Depression takes hold, the family finds itself the object of intrusive scrutiny by the press: reporters flock to interview the “Swiss Family Lester” and the public is rapt by the idea of these four people out there all alone, their existence sustained only by the twice-annual sale of wool.

Herbie thinks that all this publicity will be good for the family, that they’ve been out of civilisation too long. But when the stupid end of civilization comes to call, he loses his way. And at this point San Miguel becomes a really interesting rumination on who is and who is not equipped to be alone: the women are (not that they want to be) and the men, profoundly, are not.

Boyle can be a daring writer and at times you fear that San Miguel is going to turn into Cold Comfort Farm, or The Women At Point Sur, or even a Roger Corman movie. But it doesn’t. It’s extraordinarily direct, sympathetic and pretty, with Boyle’s characteristic aliveness to the past and its telling little details. It’s almost as if he writes to us from there.


The Herald, Oct. 13, 2012