- The Washington Times - Friday, February 5, 2010

WILD CHILD … AND OTHER STORIES

By T.C. Boyle

Viking, $25.95, 360 pages

REVIEWED BY CHRISTIAN TOTO

At first blush, the stories in T.C. Boyles latest short story collection have little in common. Tales of an over-caffeinated courier, a child savage defying societal norms and a woman forced to stare down a lethargic tiger in her backyard hardly signal unifying themes.

Yet Mr. Boyles “Wild Child,” his ninth book of stories, distills the fantastic down to the merely ordinary while losing none of the wonder in the process.

Over and again, Mr. Boyle takes outrageous situations and breaks them down until we see a glimmer of ourselves. Take the protagonist in “Thirteen Hundred Rats” who discovers an odd source of comfort after his wife passes. Or “Sin Dolor,” a tale told from the perspective of a doctor whose expertise keeps the magical elements within reason.

At times, “Wild Child” borders on Stephen King territory, but while the horror maestro typically writes until he finds that Rod Serling wrinkle, Mr. Boyle settles for smaller, more intimate truths.

This book, fast on the heels of last years “The Women,” provides an uncommonly consistent read. It’s the product of an author writing without constraints on his imagination - or talents.

The first tale, “Balto,” describes a 12-year-olds decision about whether to give a truthful answer to the court regarding her fathers involvement in a car accident. Young Angelle is cared for by an au pair in a home with a father who drinks himself into a stupor while her mother stays far, far away in France.

The story teems with elegant descriptions of a girl torn between defending her neglectful father and lashing out at him. The fractured narrative only intensifies in emotion as she approaches the witness stand.

Its easy to get lost in Mr. Boyles fiery wordplay, but many of the stories in “Wild Child” throb with narrative tension. Take the tale of a courier in “La Conchita,” a seemingly destructive fellow racing against time to bring a donated liver to a dying woman. Mr. Boyles narrator makes it hard to embrace our hero - hes all adrenaline and attitude - but he finds new layers of himself in the chaos.

And consider the awkward courtships that power both “Bulletproof” and “Question 62,” stories that illuminate the deals we cut with ourselves in order to find companionship. The former arguably represents Mr. Boyles most nuanced story in the collection, a tale that casts atheists and true believers alike along a spectrum of hate toward forgiveness.

Some of Mr. Boyles stories are rooted in his home state of California, but Mr. Boyle doesnt confine himself to the United States or even the modern era. The fascinating “Sin Dolor” concerns a Latin American teen who feels no pain, and the title story takes place at the turn of the 19th century.

“Wild Child” is the books longest story, a novella that lets Mr. Boyle wrap his gifts around actual events. “Child” focuses on a nameless, mentally challenged boy left to fend for himself in the woods. Hes become more animal than human, foraging for food and behaving like any other woodland creature. Societys attempts to normalize him prove fruitless until he comes under the care of a gentle researcher specializing in deaf mute children.

Mr. Boyles text wrestles with nature versus nurture as well as what it means to be human. What emerges is a fascinating peek at what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom and what lengths some will go to in order to affirm this boundary.

“Wild Child” represents Mr. Boyle at his best, an enthralling storyteller who can bend fiction and the supernatural to his whims with profoundly satisfying results.

Christian Toto, who writes frequently on popular culture for The Washington Times, lives in Denver.

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