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Saturday, February 22nd, 2003


After the Plague

by T. C. Boyle

A review by Ann Ellenbecker

T. Coraghessan Boyle has been around the block. He's penned scores of short stories and nine novels, the most recent, Drop City, soon to be released by Penguin. He's also written for various magazines and newspapers, including Harper's, the New Yorker, Esquire, and the Paris Review. With each added accomplishment, he further proves himself a master of his art. After the Plague, his latest collection of stories, serves up sixteen morsels, all quintessential Boyle.

In the past, critics have accused Boyle of being unsympathetic toward his own characters. This sentiment is less surprising when one comes to the realization that most of the main characters in his stories are losers. And, I don't mean self-deprecating, can't-get-a-job (or a girlfriend, or any respect) kind of losers, but, literally those who can't win — or rather, don't. The fact that Boyle can write compelling stories about this motley cast, though, is a true talent. Case in point: take one tequila and tonic-drinking surfer dude whose ostensible ambition is to avoid work and get laid. When out of contempt (or boredom?), his actions adversely effect his girlfriend, a lean, focused triathlete, the outcome of this loser suddenly takes on deeper interest. The obvious dichotomy produces a story in itself. But, the author revs up the voltage with a semi-sadistic turn of the screw and a (nearly unbelievable, but somehow inevitable) tragicomedy-of-errors that keeps the reader gripped until the end.

The title story welcomes a narrator who may be a winner, if only for the possibility that he is the sole remaining human on the planet. Eerily timely in its subject, "After the Plague" examines an Ebola-induced, post-apocalyptic world, but, one that avoids the stereotypical Hollywood formula. In Boyle's version, after the world's citizens have been systematically killed by the virus, Santa Barbara is overrun with the weeds of unkempt lawns, wild animals, and polite looters, those few survivors who took advantage of the empty shops and supermarkets but were "neat about it, almost as if they were afraid to betray their presence, and they always closed the door behind them." Also strange and refreshing (as are so many of Boyle's story lines) is the fact that this scene from the apocalypse ends on a happy note.

Boyle's writing is up-front, his subjects plucked directly from everyday America, though uniquely displayed through his skewed lens. The result is a font of emotionally and culturally observant stories. After the Plague is no exception to this rule, and, indeed, offers some of Boyle's most richly attuned, darkly comic pieces to date.

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