• Birth—December 2, 1948
• Where—Peekskill, New York, USA
• Education—B.A., State University of New York at Potsdam; Ph.D., Iowa University
• Awards—PEN/Faulkner Award, 1998
• Currently—lives near Santa Barbara, California
T. Coraghessan Boyle (kuh-RAGG-issun) received his doctorate in nineteenth-century English literature from the University of Iowa in 1977. Since 1977, Boyle has taught creative writing at the University of Southern California. While in college, Boyle exchanged his middle name, John, for the unusual Coraghessan (kuh-RAGG-issun), the name of one of his Irish ancestors.
Boyle is the author of Descent of Man (1979), Water Music (1982), Budding Prospects (1984), Greasy Lake (1985), World's End (1987, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction), If the River Was Whiskey (1989), East Is East (1990), The Road to Wellville (1993), which was made into a movie starring Anthony Hopkins, and Without a Hero (1994). His work has appeared in major American magazines, including The New Yorker, Esquire, Harper's, Paris Review, and Atlantic Monthly. Boyle lives with his wife, Karen, and their three children near Santa Barbara, California, in a house designed in 1909 by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
In the interest of time and space, it might be easier to note the writers that T. C. Boyle isn't compared to. But let's give the reverse a try: Donald Barthelme, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Evelyn Waugh, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Kingsley Amis, Thomas Berger, Robert Coover, Lorrie Moore, Stanley Elkin, Tom Robbins, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Don DeLillo, Flannery O'Connor. Oh, let's not forget F. Lee Bailey. And Dr. Seuss.
Boyle, widely admired for his acrobatic verbal skill, wild narratives and quirky characters (in one short story, he imagines a love affair between Dwight Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev's wife), has dazzled critics since his first novel in 1981.
Consider this example, from Larry McCaffery in a 1985 article for the New York Times:
Beneath its surface play, erudition and sheer storytelling power, his fiction also presents a disturbing and convincing critique of an American society so jaded with sensationalized images and plasticized excess that nothing stirs its spirit anymore.... It is into this world that Mr. Boyle projects his heroes, who are typically lusty, exuberant dreamers whose wildly inflated ambitions lead them into a series of hilarious, often disastrous adventures.
But as much as critics will bow at his linguistic gifts, some also knock him for resting on them a bit too heavily, hinting that the impressive showmanship attempts to hide a shortage of depth and substance. Craig Seligman, writing in the New Republic in 1993, pointed out that...
Boyle loves a mess. He loves chaos. He loves marshes and jungles, and he loves the jungle of language: luxuriant sentences overgrown with lianas of lists, sesquipedalian words hanging down like rare fruits. For all its exoticism, though, his prose is lucid to the point of transparency. It doesn't require much deeper concentration than a good newspaper (though it does require a dictionary).
Reviewing The Tortilla Curtain in 1995, New York Times critic Scott Spencer scratched his head over why Boyle had invited readers along for this particular ride:
Mr. Boyle's fictional strategy is puzzling. Why are we being asked to follow the fates of characters for whom he clearly feels such contempt? Not surprisingly, this is ultimately off-putting. Perhaps Mr. Boyle has received too much praise for his zany sense of humor; in this book, that wit often seems merely a maddening volley of cheap shots. It's like living next door to a gun nut who spends all day and half the night shooting at beer bottles.
Growing up, Boyle had no aspirations to be a writer. It wasn't until his studies at State University of New York, where he as a music student, that he bumped into his muse. "I went there to be a music major but found I really couldn't hack that at the age of 17," he told The Writer in 1999. "I just started to read outside my classes—literature and history. I wound up being a history and English major; when I wandered into a creative writing class as a junior, I realized that writing was what I could do."
He then started teaching, in part to avoid getting drafted into the Vietnam War, and later applied to the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop.
After a collection of short stories in 1979, he released his first novel, Water Music, called "pitiless and brilliant" by the New Republic, and has shuttled back and forth between novels and short stories, all known for their explosions of character imagination. Mr. Boyle's literary sensibility...thrives on excess, profusion, pushing past the limits of good taste to comic extremes," McCaffery wrote in his 1985 New York Times piece. "He is a master of rendering the grotesque details of the rot, decay and sleaze of a society up to its ears in K Mart oil cans, Kitty Litter and the rusted skeletons of abandoned cars and refrigerators."
In his review of Drop City, the 2003 novel set in California commune that won Boyle a National Book Award nomination, Dwight Garner joins the chorus of critical acclaim over the years—"Boyle has always been a fiendishly talented writer"—but he also acknowledges some of the criticism that Boyle has faced in these same years:
The rap against Boyle's work has long been that he's a sort of madcap predator drone, raining down hard nuggets of contempt, sarcasm and bitter humor on the poor men and women in his books while rarely giving us characters we're actually persuaded to feel anything about. This is partly a bum rap—and I'd hate to knock contempt, sarcasm and bitter humor—but there's enough truth in it that it's a joy to find, in Drop City that Boyle gives us a lot more than simply a line of bong-addled innocents led to slaughter.
But perhaps the neatest summary of Boyle's work would be from Lorrie Moore, one of the novelists to which he has been compared. In a 1994 New York Times review of Boyle's short story collection Without a Hero, she praised Boyle's "astonishing and characteristic verve, his unaverted gaze, his fascination with everything lunatic and queasy." She continues...
God knows, Mr. Boyle can write like an angel, if at times a caustic, gum-chewing one. And in this strong, varied collection maybe we have what we'd hope to find in heaven itself (by the time we begged our way there): no lessening of brilliance, plus a couple of laughs to mitigate all that high and distant sighing over what goes on below."
• Boyle changed his middle name from John to Coraghessan ( "kuh-RAGG-issun") when he was 17.
• He is known almost as much for his ego as his writing. "Each book I put out, I think, 'Goodbye, Updike and Mailer, forget it," the New Republic quoted him as saying. "I joke at Viking that I'm going to make them forget the name of Stephen King forever, I'm going to sell so many copies.
• Boyle's philosophy on reading and writing, as told to The Writer: "Good literature is a living, brilliant, great thing that speaks to you on an individual and personal level. You're the reader. I think the essence of it is telling a story. It's entertainment. It's not something to be taught in a classroom, necessarily. To be alive and be good, it has to be a good story that grabs you by the nose and doesn't let you go till The End." (From Barnes and Noble)
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