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"Tooth and Claw" by T.C. Boyle; Viking ($25.95)
T.C. Boyle could probably spin a riveting story out of the contents of a seed catalog. He is a writer of astonishing range and imagination, fierce intelligence and trenchant wit. Those gifts are dazzlingly displayed in this collection of 14 short stories, each a fully realized world shot through with perils either natural or man-made.
Environmental themes inform several of these tales, including "Dogology," which pits blinkered humans against people who take on the attributes of animals (a woman in suburban Connecticut who behaves like a dog; two children in India who are raised by wolves).
In the book's title story, a young man wins (or loses, depending upon your viewpoint) a bet in a bar and finds himself in possession of an African serval cat, which proceeds to devour the man's apartment. The ambiguous ending is both harrowing and funny.
In "Blinded by the Light," a wealthy Mexican sheep farmer is visited by an American doomsayer, whose jeremiads about the vanishing ozone layer scare the bejesus out of the ranch hands but not the skeptical farmer, whose smugness may be his undoing. And in "Jubilation," a perhaps-too-broad riff on Celebration, the Disney town in Florida, earnest New Urbanists carve a picture-perfect community out of swampland, only to come up against disease-carrying mosquitoes, killer hurricanes and alligators. The message: Nature bats last.
Boyle, who has spoken openly about his own past struggles with drugs, is especially good at getting inside the heads of characters who skirt the edges of pharmacological disaster. "When I Woke Up This Morning, Everything I Had Was Gone" is his most gripping story in this genre, and if its ending doesn't make you gasp, you haven't been paying attention. Another, "Up Against the Wall," is a cautionary tale about the intergenerational grip of alcoholism.
But the author's virtuosity is such that he can leap effortlessly from the boozy world of down-and-outers to the hardships of an early 18th-century woman. In "The Doubtfulness of Water," set in 1702, a young widow makes her way on horseback from Boston to Manhattan to settle an estate. Her journey through wilderness backwaters is told so vividly, sprinkled as it is with archaisms like "testudineous," "horripilating" and "reptatory," that we are right there with her, traversing creaky bridges, sleeping in flea-ridden beds and eating a sauce "so ancient it might have been scraped together from the moss grown on the skulls of the Christian martyrs."
Indeed, one of the great pleasures of these stories is Boyle's rambunctious love of language. We read of a voice "like the creak of oarlocks out on the bay in the first breath of dawn," a "face that was like a dried-up field plowed in both directions," a wind so fierce that "the sheep in the fields were snatched up and flung across the countryside like so many puffs of lint," a sun "trembling like the flame of a gas stove."
Boyle's universe may be cruel and random, but it has a brilliant blaze.
(c) 2005, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.