If there is an American fiction writer better able to surprise us with an ending than T.C. Boyle, I can’t imagine who it might be. Boyle is that rare talent whose work is realistic enough to grip the imagination, creating the possibility of happiness or disaster, and build up real speed towards the finale, allowing for the sudden emotional swerve that hooks a climax into memory. Yet he’s "literary" too, so as not to be constrained into predictability by requirements of any particular genre, which tends to require either a happy ending (as in most movie dramas) or a horrific ending (as in much horror, cf. Stephen King).
Boyle is also rare, if not unique, as a fiction writer for his deep-seated interest in environmental questions, which often emerges in his fiction (for example "A Friend of the Earth," another book I’m overdue to read). This interest in environmental matters and in surprise endings has come out in two recent stories published in two of our best magazines.
A couple of years ago in the New Yorker, Boyle published a harrowing story about the floods of 2005 in SoCal, called La Conchita, which left a powerful (and good) impression on me; last month he published a story about the infamous idea of cloning a beloved dog in Harper’s, called Admiral, which has also stuck with me, although it’s not as potent.
But here’s the point: in both cases, the story builds up towards an apparent disaster — a cataclysm, of some sort. [Warning: those who haven’t read the stories and might want to, go do that now: SPOILER AHEAD!]
The surprise is that despite the 21st settings and the threat of an apocalypse, personal or bigger than that — it works out okay. That’s the true twist ending, these days,. Survival. And it feels so sweet. Here’s a big moment for our lead near the end of the best of these two:
People were crowding around all of a sudden, and there must have been a
dozen or more, wet as rats, looking shell-shocked, the hair glued to
their heads. Their voices ran away like kites blown on the wind.
Somebody had a movie camera. And my cell was ringing, had been ringing
for I don’t know how long. It took me a minute to wipe the scrim of mud
from the face of it, and then I pressed the talk button and held it to
Straight out of a movie, isn’t it? That’s the point. True heroism, these days, is to believe in the future.