Book Review - Author T.C. Boyle revels in half-truths

Reality is relative in Boyle's latest book, Wild Child

Wednesday January 27, 2010 04:00 am EST

Victor of Aveyron was left for dead by his mother. A small child fending for himself in the wild woods of late 18th-century France, Victor foraged and gleaned at the edges of civilization, gnawing on potatoes left from the harvest or expertly catching frogs to consume whole. Civilization eventually caught up with this feral child, even though it didn't know what to do with him. In "Wild Child," the titular and most substantial story of T.C. Boyle's new collection, tavern keeper DeFarge tries to bring Victor into the warmth of his establishment. As the boy is passed through the tavern's threshold, he strikes out at DeFarge's neck with his teeth. "The blood was there, instant, paralyzing, and within seconds the taverner's beard flowed with it," Boyle writes. The boy is resisting civilization at the same time Enlightenment intellectuals in France are posing questions about the difference between animal and man. Victor's story is real: He is one of a few documented feral children that have captivated historians over the years. Whether he ever actually bit a tavern keeper on the neck, though, isn't so clear.

Over the course of 12 novels and eight short story collections, Boyle has written from the perspective of an assistant to Alfred Kinsey; the wives of Frank Lloyd Wright; a son of the McCormick family; and an aid to Dwight D. Eisenhower, among others. Even when he isn't writing in the context of a famous figure, Boyle's stories almost always center on readily identifiable eras and social milieus. The novel Drop City imagines a group of lives not unlike those lived by the famed commune in Drop City, Colo. One of his more anthologized stories, "Carnal Knowledge," hinges on the late-'80s fever for the animal liberation movement. As a writer, Boyle's undeniably wrapped up in history, but isn't so hot-and-bothered about the facts.

Boyle's fictions walk a thin line between accuracy and fabrication. A story with Wright doesn't work if his character doesn't conform to the well-dressed, iconoclastic figure we know. On the other hand, we weren't privy to his intimate interactions with his wives. Boyle does more than fill in the blanks. He creates a parallel world for these familiar names to inhabit. Here, Ike is free to have an affair with Khrushchev's wife at the height of the Cold War. Alfred and Clara Kinsey can socialize with an entirely imaginary circle of friends. Again and again, Boyle illustrates the point that creating clear, compelling characters makes for a good story. Getting the facts "right" only amounts to what's right for these imaginary characters.

It's a longstanding rumor that Joyce Carol Oates made a pact with the devil, allowing her to write books at a pace that would give most authors whiplash. While Boyle's certainly prolific, he's not quite deal-with-the-devil prolific. Boyle may have made an entirely different pact with the devil – one that lets him write from vast and varied perspectives with an air that seems irrefutably factual. While reading "Wild Child," it's easy to forget that Boyle is inventing the thoughts and interactions of Victor and his interceders. At times, it's even possible to forget you're reading fiction.

And "Wild Child's" details are most certainly fiction. Boyle has used the broad outlines of Victor's tale to explore the psychic condition of post-revolutionary France, to repose the intriguing questions of that time. By creating (or not creating) moments like the one with the tavern keeper, Boyle seamlessly blends the real with the realistic. As the last pages follow Victor into the end of his life, "Wild Child" becomes the story of T.C. Boyle's Victor, rather than history's Victor.

Wild Child and Other Stories by T.C. Boyle. Viking. $25.95. 320 pp.

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