Few circumstances are black and white in T. C. Boyle's collection of short stories, "After the Plague." Except Moira and Caitlin, that is. They are heiress sisters who evoke Howard Hughes in the way that fabulous wealth can buy absolute insanity. Boyle introduces them via Larry, the gardener who's cultivating his own demise by furthering their design for a world devoid of color. They want all the grass, and flowers, and even the grand old trees on their property pulled up and paved over with blacktop. It's a big job, so Larry will need to hire a crew to help, an expense that troubles the sisters not at all, as long as the hirelings dress right: "You know the rules," Moira says. "Black jeans, white T-shirt, black caps. No exceptions." And, "no Mexicans," a prejudice born not of race but of color. Sure they're nuts, and yes, he'll be destroying the sort of life he's been nurturing for years, but hey, Larry figures, the money's good, and besides, Caitlin's kind of cute. Before long, they're bed partners, and she's hinting at how this color scheme came to be when Moira interrupts: If you're planning on seeing Caitlin often, she says, "you're simply not white enough. There'll be no more outdoor work. . . ." He's a casualty of love, or whatever it is they share. And on that note, he fits right in with the populations of Boyle's discrete and untidy worlds: Sorrows, bitterness, and failures of relationship run through many of them. Sometimes the lovers' discord is visible from the start, such as in "She Wasn't Soft," the tale of Jason, the surf shop stoner, and Paula Turk, the triathlete with enough drive for the two of them. Another time, in "The Love of My Life," the subjects are teen lovers who share a path on which hell is only a waystation to worse. Most of the spoiled relationships in the collection are of the romantic kind, but one of the most affecting portrayals is of father and son, in "Achates McNeil." Just in the name, Boyle packs plenty. The title character is the boy, a college student, whose dad called him Ake, "with a k," he says, as if to distinguish himself from the chronic pain he's always felt he was. And who names their kid Achates, anyway? A pompous, literary bag of wind, which is just how youth regards elder. To the world, Tom O'Neill is a great writer, but to his son, he's the egotist who ran out, then hit it big with a tale of a family's breakdown. On the congratulatory circuit, he told interviewers that his wife and family had stifled him, and held him back. Ensconced in his piddling upstate college town, the ache in Ake is dulled until the day he learns, by reading a campus poster, that the great one is coming to town for a reading. Ake figures, he's probably coming to try to make some lame rapprochement, and that's what transpires. When the writer mounts the stage for his reading and announces, "It's a deeply personal piece, and painful too, but tonight I read it as an act of contrition. I read it for my son," the smarm alarm is clanging and the squirming is about to get worse. Despite the thread of gray relationships, Boyle coolly mixes genres, locations, and styles. One is set in the frontier West; another features a similar time, if only in the narrator's escapist reading. But Boyle also peers into the near future, such as in "Peep Hall," in which a bond develops between a lass who's paid to live in a house crowded with Net-cams and a $36-a-month client. "Rust" is the tragicomic entry, in which the action comes to life in front of the TV and dies in the backyard. "My Widow" is narrated by a ghostly voice describing his wife, who lives amid the squalor of defecating cats. Boyle exploits the short-story form at both ends. He consistently plunges his readers into each of his 16 worlds within a few sentences, and wrings all he can out of his situations. Not every entry is satisfying, and the weakest of them are even puzzling; after the first disappointment, I felt as though I had failed the author by not appreciating it. But by the third, I understood, again, how difficult it is to be brilliant every time. Still, Boyle is brilliant more than most. The collection concludes with the title tale, an evocation of George R. Stewart's 1949 classic, "Earth Abides," that contains some of Boyle's most puckish writing: The plague, which wipes out almost everyone, "was a kind of miracle really, what the environmentalists had been hoping for all along, though of course even the most strident of them wouldn't have wished for his own personal extinction." It is also the most open-ended story of the bunch, which ends at a point that could easily have been a beginning. One consequence is to leave a hunger for more from the author, in whatever future he decides to proceed.
T.C. BOYLE'S SHORT STORIES ARE LONG ON EMOTION