Reading in the Dark: My Winter with T. C. Boyle

By Michelle Brafman

I devoured T.C. Boyle’s novels and stories after the PEN/Faulkner Foundation asked me to moderate an event called “All Things Animate Beating in Unison: An Evening with T.C. Boyle.” I read them as he wrote them, a novel followed by a cluster of short stories, rinse and repeat. I started in late December and stopped the night of the Boyle event, six days after the end of a cruel winter.

I decided on that brisk spring night that I would not read T.C. Boyle for a long while, and it wasn’t because I didn’t love his work, because I still do, or that reading him would not make me a better writer, because it definitively would, or that I hadn’t found a dozen models of the point of view I am trying to pull off in my next novel, because I did.

I decided not to read T.C. Boyle past the sixth day of spring because I knew that I would always associate him with the winter of my developmentally disabled sister-in-law’s torturous demise. I know now that I will also link him with the joyful moments of my family and professional life, only made sweeter by the looming death we lived with every day as her caregivers.

In early January, I made a pledge that I was going to endeavor to read everything Boyle had ever written: 15 novels and around 100 short stories. I failed at my goal, but not without putting a nice dent in his canon. Breakfast is the only meal my family consistently shares, and while my husband divvied up The Washington Post, I sat at the head of the table with my shiny new red 915 page hardcover beauty, T.C. Boyle’s Short Stories Volume II. I didn’t read like a writer. I didn’t attach Post-It notes to my favorite pages or underline sentences that hummed or dissect narrative structures that should come with a warning: “Don’t try this at home.” I simply followed the stories wherever they took me: to an abortion clinic, an Alaskan bar, a virtual peep show.

I assigned “Balto,” and “Hit Man” to a student whom I tutor, and we unpacked them together, and then I read a dozen more stories sitting in the bleachers of my son’s swim meets. I read passages of “Greasy Lake” aloud to my husband, and he smiled because he appreciates a well-crafted sentence and an apt rock ‘n’ roll epigraph, although he’s not a Springsteen fan. And when friends asked me how I was doing, I often responded by describing a T.C. Boyle story or tidbit from an interview I’d just read because really, who wants to hear the gory details of a long and protracted cancer death? My family had built a cocoon around itself as confining as my sister-in-law’s apartment, thick with the scent of the Bengay her hospice nurses rubbed on her lower back. Periodically, we’d let relatives and close friends inside; for me, Boyle had taken up permanent residence with us.

I read “Chicxulub” after coming home from a difficult visit with my sister-in-law, her arms and legs skinny as chopsticks and excruciatingly painful to the touch. I cried, not only because I shared the narrator’s imagining of the tragic fate of a daughter, but because the meteor that had hit my sister-in-law hadn’t been kind enough to knock her out completely. Much of the beginning and ending of life revolves around waste management, and as my sister-in-law’s body shut down, ironically, I read Road to Wellville, its numerous scatological references resonating with me a little more than I’d wished. It did feel good to laugh, though. During one of many snow days, I curled up with When the Killing’s Done and renewed my connection to the natural world, its vastness taking me outside of myself for a span of pages. On the sub-zero degree night before my sister-in-law’s funeral, I read Boyle’s newest novel, The Harder They Come, in a Syracuse Hampton Inn while my children stretched out beside me on our king-size bed and watched reruns of an insipid Disney sitcom. I finished the book the next night in another Hampton Inn room in Pennsylvania because the snow thwarted our plans to drive back to DC. I found the novel’s violence a disturbing comfort.

Between stories and more novels, I read essays, the most profound, “This Monkey, My Back.” As a somewhat obsessive person, I was stirred by Boyle’s description of his writing as an addiction “as powerful and overmastering an urge as putting a bottle to your lips or a spike in our arm.” Yes, writing was just the vice I needed to make it through the winter, and maybe beyond. So I wrote, mainly junk and journal entries of moments with my sister-in-law: my little boy bringing her snow in a plastic cup, spending date night watching Family Feud with her, sitting with my husband while he told her that she wasn’t going to get better, that kind of thing. By simply moving my fingers across the keyboard, I was able to hold on to the human moments hidden in her suffering.

When I told a friend about Boyle’s influence over the past few months of my life, she suggested that I would have attached such meaning to anything I’d read. But that’s not true. I believe that books find you when you need them most. I wouldn’t have read them at all had I not had this assignment from PEN/Faulkner. I couldn’t concentrate without a good reason to, and even if I could have, I wouldn’t have sought out T.C. Boyle. And I wouldn’t have had a companion throughout my winter.

Now it is summer, and we are molting. My sister-in-law’s death is a receding headline in our lives, although if someone appears truly interested, I’ll find myself blurting out details about the funeral or shiva. But that’s rarer and rarer as the days progress. I am grateful to T.C. Boyle for his unwitting visit to our grief bubble.

It is time to let him go.

Leave a Reply