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T. Coraghessan Boyle—do yourself a favor: just call him Tom or T.C.—has always steered clear of the grown-ups’ table. Although this mischievous middle-ager with the devilish goatee and heroin-spiked past has proved he can hang with stuffy true-lit fogies such as Updike and Theroux (see: award-winning shorts and epic novels like The Road to Wellville and Riven Rock), Boyle has spent most of his time screwing around with the boys at the fold-out card table, young studs like Michael Chabon and Thom Jones, who pepper their otherwise earnest prose with juicy pop-culture references and crowd-pleasing twists. You can find Boyle’s stories in The Paris Review and The Atlantic Monthly; you can find Boyle’s stories in Penthouse and Oui. (You just can’t tell anyone where you read them.)

Despite occasional bursts of verbal acrobatics that scream New School show-off (and do nothing but dizzy the reader), Boyle is nevertheless unmatched among his peers at plumping offbeat narrative skeletons with Cinerama details, quicksilver pacing, and unforced charm—and still getting invited to a George Plimpton party before John Irving. In everything he writes, the California scribe manages to conjure a tremendous gravitational pull toward the finale; there are no “Are we there yet?”s on his road trips. Boyle’s idea of fiction is a take-no-prisoners workout of words, the ultimate reward being a loyal readership that spans from Harvard to Harrisburg Area Community College. Yes, Boyle can be guilty of trying to woo both the haves and the have-nots, but he has yet to pull a Grisham or fake a King: Boyle is the stuck-in-his-ways barkeep at the corner joint, doling out his reliable signature scotch—shot after shot after shot—from which many simply can’t walk away.

Including more than 70 of his short stories—written between the late ’70s and the late ’90s and culled from 27 magazines and literary journals—T.C. Boyle Stories is a 691-page box-set from the master craftsman who would be Peter Pan. Broken down into three parts—”Love,” Death,” “And Everything in Between”—this massive collection is not only a must-have for Boyle diehards but an eye-opening opportunity for anyone who really wants to enjoy fiction in the New Yorker but can never get past that first goddamn paragraph.

Dwight D. Eisenhower and Nina Khrushcheva have a secret affair that transforms the former president into a lovestruck puppy dog and the Soviet first lady into a coquettish schoolgirl (“Ike and Nina”). Lassie—yes, that Lassie—chooses lust over a Timmy-in-trouble when a “puny, runted…discarded doormat” of a wolf comes crawling through the cornfield looking for a quickie (“Heart of a Champion”). A young man watches his relationship crumble when his scientist girlfriend falls in love—and ultimately into a lice-festooned bed—with the smartest chimp at a primate research center (“Descent of Man”). A brawny, slow-witted football player for the Caledonia College Shuckers—the losingest team in the nation for the umpteenth consecutive year—bets the remainder of his emotional stability on the doomed outcome of the final game of his gridiron career (“56-0”).

This is the lifelong dare T.C. Boyle has set for himself: to create outlandish, unlikely premises and make sure the featured characters—loaded with as many quirks as demons—and their actions are unmistakably, convincingly human. He challenges the reader to buy into such bizarre plot lines and trust him with the journey. He rarely fails. And if there’s a message to be found somewhere, someplace—Boyle is always going apeshit over environmental desecration, though he won’t shirk from giving PETA-philes a kick in the ass—then the author will let you determine the truth on your own. Far be it from Boyle to slow down for a sermon.

In “Little Fur People,” Grace Gargano, an older woman who has turned her small home into an unofficial wild squirrel hospice, risks the safety of her human family when a Fish and Game official threatens to take her pets away. Boyle’s examination of Grace’s elderly lifestyle is a gentle, sweet study—despite the constant chittering (and slapstick) of 32 rambunctious rodents—but the author lets the punches fly with fellow golden-ager Willis in “Acts of God”: The 75-year-old man must battle a monster hurricane in order to save Muriel, his relentlessly ball-busting (and quite stupid) wife. Here, Boyle ups the ante with action, suspense, and special effects straight out of Twister, but it’s Willis’ inner monologue—hating his wife, worrying about his wife, loving his wife—that fuels the finest tension. After maneuvering his rickety 1972 Ford Fairlane from the post office through the raging mayhem and finally to his neighborhood, a physically and emotionally wrecked Willis, clutching his chest with so many last breaths, finds not his house and his wife, but a gaping, savage pit where his house and his wife once stood. The canyon between despair and hope is breathtaking:

Then he thought of Muriel. Muriel. She was, she was…he couldn’t form the thought, and he staggered across the lawn like a drunk to stand gaping into that terrible hole in the ground….

His jacket was wet through and his arms hung limp at his sides by the time he turned away and limped back over the sodden lawn, a soldier returning from the wars. He dragged himself across the street to the car, and all he could think of was Ted Casselman, down at the Dew Drop—he would know what to do—and he actually had the door open, one foot poised on the rocker panel, when he glanced up for a final bewildered look, and a movement on the Novaks’ porch caught his eye.

There is no strict formula for a Boyle story, but “The Human Fly,” composed in 1988, comes close to containing most of his trademark flavors: irreverence, compassion, dark humor, breakneck pace, and a seriocomic denouement that winks in the direction of O. Henry’s grave. It is also one of his finest pieces.

Zoltan Mindszenty, a feeble, near-mute Hungarian daredevil with a ratty cape, saggy tights, foggy swim goggles, and the self-administered stage name of “La Mosca Humana,” appears out of nowhere in the office of a struggling talent agent—a lonely, attractive 30-something woman who tells the story—and demands to be famous. As his stunts get more and more dangerous—living in a cocoon suspended from a skyscraper, strapping himself onto the wing of a DC-10 and surviving a flight around a Tijuana airport—and his fame continues to grow (the National Enquirer, Johnny Carson)—Zoltan gets increasingly hungry for more danger, more fame. He eventually devises a plan for the greatest stunt of all time: ride on the axle of a Peterbilt rig from Maine to L.A., then, immediately upon touching down on terra firma, attempt to jump 26 trucks with his motorcycle:

He was a blur, he was nothing, he was invisible, a rush of motion above the scream of the engine. I saw something—a shadow—launch itself into the thick brown air, cab after cab receding beneath it, the glint of chrome in the sun, fifteen trucks, twenty, twenty-five, and then the sight that haunts me to this day. Suddenly the shadow was gone and a blemish appeared on the broad side panel of the last truck…and then, simultaneous with it, there was the noise. A single booming reverberation, as if the world’s biggest drum had exploded, followed by the abrupt cessation of the motorcycle’s roar and the sad tumbling clatter of dissociated metal.

Boyle has a significant wealth of detractors: critics and readers who condemn the writer for his excessive wordplay and disrespect for the economics of modifier selection. For them, Boyle is much more showman that craftsman. If these people are indeed correct—and I obviously (blindingly?) don’t think they are—then they should be aware that Boyle, as he gets older and his pen gets heavier, appears to be headed toward a novel in which he lays to rest some of his industrial light and magic and takes a crack at less direct, more shadowy storytelling. Then again, if he maintains his current course, I certainly won’t mind. And if he keeps attracting both the snobs and the slobs to the party of pages, then, naturally, neither will he.CP