TC Boyle. World’s End. Penguin, New York. 1987. F;2/17.
I was so disappointed with The Terranauts that I downloaded and reread this novel which I remembered being thrilled by a few decades ago, the paper version for some reason missing from my shelves. It’s wonderful. Boyle, here in the 1980s and at his best, was spectacularly and caustically lyrical, landing some of the most acerbic tropes I’ve ever read. The plot and characters have a Wallace-like complexity. The story takes a credible run at the human moral condition, even if we’re not sure it doesn’t leave us a bit more convinced of its vicious bitterness than of the full wonder of its tragedy.
It’s about the lives and conflicts of three major clans living around the Hudson River north of New York, first in the 17th century and then in the 20th. The Van Warts are feudal-style land barons whose descendents still control property and political power in the 1980s. Walter is the modern member of the Van Brunt family, originally tenant farmers on the Van Wart property, and native Indians are present and intimately involved with the new and the old societies. A very necessary Russian-novel list of main characters precedes the story.
A lot of my pleasure came direct from Mr. Boyle’s irresistible imagination. A lowlife guy in a bar wears a shirt which “seemed to be fashioned from a synthetic fabric composed of Handy-Wrap and styrofoam”, a grandmother “crackle(s), her voice frying like grease in a skillet”, a gorgeous woman “carrie(s) herself like a gift on a tray”, a rich landowner “unfold(s his) paper with a snort of contempt”.
Boyle also capably represents in the lives of his characters a pretty dazzling range of ideas. The importance of history, treachery and duplicity, the political right and left, foolhardiness and stupidity, and anger and violence play out in a chaotic but tightly-circumscribed world of storms and freezing temperatures, a terrifying dark marine graveyard, stinking filthy hovels, and angry drunken fighting late at night. It’s a weird frightening community packed with amputation and endurance of unimaginable adversity, where it seems nearly always to be Halloween. A family of pedagogues named Crane evokes the comedy-horror of Sleepy Hollow. This author’s rich enthusiasm for the dark, dirty, human collision of power and its subjects, Dutch, English, and natives, fills the narrative to overflowing.
But eventually the focus narrows to a non-optional struggle over fundamental moral issues that come up from the dirt already-decided but still muddy with social, family, and personal history. Finally these issues converge even more specifically on the father. And we don’t escape, try as the father himself might be desperate to, the terrible responsibility of inheritance by our kids of the very worst that we are and we do.
Wouter Van Brunt, in the late 1600s, has his adolescent male heart broken when his always powerfully independent father humiliates himself in front of the landowner and the community. The hurt young man eventually betrays two friends who are executed for a fire that he, Wouter, set. Many generations later contemporary Walter Van Brunt tracks his own father to a hideous freezing town in Alaska to be told that the old man, now a sodden alcoholic, did something damagingly dishonest during an anti-communist riot, and then ran out on his wife and children.
We are told when we read we are in search of the author, and here along with his startling creative language Boyle, a slim diminutive man, stands enormous in his command of detail and commitment to plot intricacies. The world finally ends with an ironic pulling together of contemporary families first thrown into one another’s worlds in 17th century embryonic America. If TC Boyle doesn’t quite manage to embrace us with a benign vision of humanity, he here beguiles us well enough with his irony that we can’t be sure he hasn’t.