In the preface to “Stories II,” T.C. Boyle recalls a reading Stanley Elkin once gave at the Iowa Writers Workshop.
“Mr. Elkin,” a student asked, “you’ve written a terrific collection of stories – why don’t you write more of them?”
Elkin’s response? “No money in it. Next question.”
The same has not been true of Boyle, who writes novels and short fiction interchangeably. And yet in these 900-plus pages containing 58 stories from the past 15 years, Boyle means to give us more than a collection; rather, it’s an edifice intended – not unlike its equally massive predecessor, “Stories” (1998) – to define a legacy.
For Boyle, 64, that’s a complex process, since his tales mix brilliance with high-concept pyrotechnics. Perhaps the best way to read “Stories II,” then, is as an expression of Boyle’s aesthetic in all its complicated inconsistency.
As for the brilliant, there’s “Chicxulub,” perhaps the most moving story Boyle has written, previously published in 2005. Here, a middle-aged father reflects on the asteroid that 65 million years ago struck the Yucatan and extinguished “at least seventy-five percent of all known species, including the dinosaurs,” framing it as a metaphor for the risks of parenthood, of family and the disasters that can disrupt our own worlds with neither warning nor remorse.
Then there’s the magnificent “Sic Transit,” one of the new stories, in which a middle-aged businessman living in an affluent California community finds himself moved by the death of a reclusive neighbor, a former rock ‘n’ roller who was derailed by the drowning of his young daughter many years before.
Why should we care about this, Boyle wonders. “The answer is simple: he was you, he was me, he was any of us, and his life was important. ...”