T .C. Boyle has always been a timely writer. His story “Modern Love,” written during the height of the AIDS pandemic, features a germaphobe who insists on “a full-body condom” before any intimacy. “There was no exchange of body fluids on the first date,” it begins. “Hard Sell,” published in 1987, is narrated by a PR guy who has been hired to soften the image of the Ayatollah Khomeini. “Dig the photo,” he urges. “Yeah. From yesterday’s New York Times. See the button there…? Well, maybe it is a little fuzzy, AP is the pits, but that’s a ‘Go Yankees!’ button I gave him myself.”
If you think such efforts come off as dated, you might want to think again. Just look at the time and place in which we find ourselves, where during the last two-and-a-half years a different pandemic has overwhelmed us, and only a few weeks ago, the novelist Salman Rushdie was attacked and nearly killed by a zealot who may have been seeking to fulfill the fatwa that the ayatollah himself, now long dead, declared in February 1989.
What Boyle understands—has always understood—is that the more specific one is in a piece of writing, the more universal that piece of writing becomes.
I Walk Between the Raindrops, Boyle’s 12th collection of short fiction—he is also the author of 18 novels—offers a case in point, gathering stories that address, among other subjects, incels, autonomous vehicles, and electronic surveillance. The intent is not commentary so much as an engagement with the world. That’s been his aesthetic all along, from The Road to Wellville, Riven Rock, and The Inner Circle, which reimagine the lives of historical figures, to various homages and pastiches, including “Heart of a Champion,” “Me Cago en la Leche (Robert Jordan in Nicaragua),” and “The Overcoat II,” that do something similar with literature.
“She’d occupied her cabin and we’d occupied ours,” Boyle writes in “The Thirteenth Day,” which takes place on a cruise ship under quarantine, “and we were all, equally, available to contagion, which, I suppose, is the most basic form of democracy.”
“The Thirteenth Day” functions in many ways as a centerpiece to I Walk Between the Raindrops, and not only because it sits in the exact middle of the book. Rather, it is because of Boyle’s decision to take on coronavirus, which even as it has become a defining presence of the moment, has been largely absent from fiction and literature. How many stories and novels have been written during lockdown and its aftermath? Yet to read much of this work is to encounter what seems almost like an alternate universe, an alternate history, in which people interact with one another as if the virus had never come to pass. I recognize the problem: Who wants to read about COVID while we are continuing to struggle through it? What else could there possibly be to say? At the same time, if literature’s resonance (or one of them) comes from portraying what it’s like to live at a particular moment, then contemporary fiction has—in this regard, at least—let us down.
For Boyle, there is no such reticence; “The Thirteenth Day” was written in March 2020. Perhaps to highlight that immediacy, it is the only story in I Walk Between the Raindrops to be accompanied by a completion date. The title offers an ironic twist on the original duration of COVID quarantine: 14 days. This becomes a setup for Boyle’s absurdist sensibilities; throughout the narrative, the isolation clock resets again and again the day before the 14th day arrives.
Such a move is reminiscent of Boyle’s early story “The Big Garage,” in which a character known only as B. (shades of Kafka) must wait, interminably, for his car to undergo repairs. There are other antecedents: Katherine Anne Porter, for one (what else is the cruise in question if not a riff on Ship of Fools?), and Roberto Bolaño (the ship has 2,666 passengers, until they start to succumb). And, of course, there is the author and his lacerating eye. “Americans, in my experience,” Boyle (or his narrator) observes, “are unused to privation of any kind, expecting this great spinning globe we communally ride to deliver up exactly what they want, when they want.”
The line could apply to many of the characters in this collection. Take Eric, who in “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” sits down across from the narrator, Sarah, in the dining car of a train from Los Angeles to Dallas “and [runs] a hand across his T-shirt again, which, I saw now, featured a single word in three-inch-high letters—INCEL—which I took to be the name of one of the ten thousand new rock bands I’d never heard of, thinking my daughter would know (and patronize me for being so out of it).” That we understand how out of touch she is adds to the tension of the scene. Or Justin in “The Shape of a Teardrop”: “thirty-one years of age” and frantic to fight back against his parents’ efforts to evict him from his childhood room. “I should bite my tongue,” his mother laments, worrying over the situation. “I should remember the way he once was, the way life was before whatever happened to him—to us, all of us, him, Doug, and me—wiped it all away.”
Here we see the other side of Boyle, plumbing the depths of our desire and our desperation, all the ways that we cannot connect. This emerges not just in these two stories, but also in the title effort, which involves a couple in retreat from their coastal California hometown, devastated by debris flow. Boyle is great at writing about disaster—both the details of it and the aftermath. In the 2004 story “Chicxulub,” which may be his finest, a middle-aged father reflects on the ancient asteroid that killed off “at least seventy-five percent of all known species, including the dinosaurs,” seeing in it a metaphor for the upheavals we can neither anticipate nor protect ourselves against. “There had been no warning,” the narrator of “I Walk Between the Raindrops” tells us, “no evacuation notice, nothing—just rain, that was all—and there was no way they could have anticipated what came next.”
This sort of fatalism represents the flip side of Boyle’s perspective; it is an animating force throughout his work. You can’t have one without the other—the sense of presence and the existential risk. Time and timelessness, in other words. Being and nothingness. Or, as he writes in “Dog Lab,” the closing story of this engaged collection: “One minute you’re alive, the next you’re dead—those were the conditions of the world, and even to attempt to assign any logic to them was to fall into the deep, dark vat of religion and other associated forms of voodoo.”•