The usual darkly comic cautionary tales, but also some bracingly and impressively new works from the prolific author (The Women, 2009, etc.).
Many of these 13 short stories echo a bit too closely Boyle’s numerous earlier envisionings of human greed and stupidity, and the harsh ways in which nature outwits and punishes us all. In “La Conchita,” the delivery of a human liver destined for transplant is compromised by an epic California mudslide. How to vote on a resolution to protect indigenous wildlife (“Question 62”) assumes new meaning for a gentle young widow when a mountain lion begins patrolling her neighborhood. A high-school biology teacher learns just how impassioned the debate over evolution vs. creationism has become (“Bulletproof”); a lonely widower acquires an unconventional pet, incurring the interference of “Thirteen Hundred Rats”; and a veteran babysitter indulges the wishes of a childless rich couple who replace their late Afghan hound with a ridiculously expensive cloned canine (“Admiral”). Boyle nods off elsewhere, in the limp tale of a Botoxed beauty’s unrequited love for her sleek surgeon (“Hands On”), and in depictions of neighborhood enmity exacerbated by wildfires (“Ash Monday”) and drug-addicted vocalists pretending to rediscover their humanity while recording a Christmas novelty tune (“Three Quarters of the Way to Hell”). But he’s at his best in an icy portrayal of a contemptible new dad who exploits his baby daughter to enable his shiftlessness (“The Lie”), and in “Sin Dolor,” the tale of a boy born unable to feel pain and victimized by both his greedy father and the amoral physician who sees only material for a revolutionary case study. Better still is the title novella, a rich reimagining of the story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron, a feral innocent who deserves a better fate than forced integration into “civilization,” which inevitably destroys him.
With each book Boyle becomes a more adventurous and interesting writer.