Thursday, December 20, 2012

An unforgiving island and a story woven to pass the time (Books - San Miguel by T.C. Boyle)

San Miguel was the first novel I have read of the 13 of T. C. Boyle and I found him a vivid writer who really knows how to tell a good story.  This tale of three generations from the 1880s to the 1940s who inhabit an unforgiving island off the coast of Southern California was free of Boyle's reputed whimsy.  I was going to say that this is a sober tale about the borderline between grit and stubbornness, and it is sober, but unlike many modern novels that put forth a unifying theme, this is a novel that is about what it is about.  The damp, ramshackle ranch where the Waters and then the Lester families live is not a symbol, it's a dwelling.
Her first impression was of nakedness, naked walls struck with penurious little windows, a yard of windblown sand giving onto an infinite vista of sheep-ravaged scrub that radiated out from it in every direction and not a tree or shrub or scap of ivy in sight.  There was nothing even remotely quaint or cozy about it.  It might as well have been lifted up in a tornado and set down in the middle of the Arabian Desert.  And where were the camels?  The women in burnooses?  She was so disappointed - stunned, shocked - that she was scarcely aware of the boy as he pushed open the rude gate for her.  "You want I should put the things in the parlor?"  he asked.
The characters did not, as the book's jacket suggest, read like examples of strength, they are simply people, very flawed people who could be petty, who could give up, who could be jealous, overly ambitious, loving, and, yes, determined. The advantage of this was that they were unpredictable.  I felt like I was spying on these people in their lives, that if they turned around and saw me they would feel interrupted and self-conscious.  Without a theme to give the reading a unifying purpose, the job of Boyle's narrative was to keep me interested in the place and the characters and it is his talent that he does.  This felt like old fashioned storytelling - not a narrative to sell an idea but a story woven to pass the time, to entertain, to hold the reader's interest.


Pam J. said...

I enjoyed this book quite a lot, although I did wish Boyle had revealed a bit more about the final years of certain characters. But that small criticism aside, I would recommend it to anyone. I learned so much about the island, all of it interesting. I've read many of Boyle's other novels, and your word "whimsy" was a good one.
That whimsy was on display throughout The Road to Wellville and (I think) Riven Rock, although I remember the latter only vaguely.

Ted said...

He has another book set on the Channel Islands called When the Killing's Done. I have it on my pile as I'm curious to read more by him.