The epigraph for T.C. Boyle's new short story collection is taken from Henry David Thoreau: "In Wildness is the preservation of the world."
But are we so far from wildness we can't recognize it anymore?
Some of the 14 tales in Wild Child and Other Stories hint that we might be, while others reveal a hunger for the passionate, intense, inexplicable experience, suggesting we still need wildness and may be hopeless without it.
Boyle is a masterful novelist, as such complex books as The Road to Wellville, Drop City and The Women make clear. But he also has a gift for the tighter, sharper focus of the short story. This is his ninth collection, and it teems with strong writing and surprises.
Several of these stories focus on predator-prey relationships. We might not think of ourselves as either, but Boyle has another perspective. In Question 62, two sisters, both longtime vegetarians, unexpectedly find themselves faced with predators. For Mae, crushing snails in her California garden, it's a surreal confrontation: She looks through her fence and sees a tiger.
Anita, a young widow in Wisconsin, comes home from working the night shift to find another kind of predator on her doorstep. The neighbor who wants to talk to her about a petition to allow the hunting of feral cats is tall and boyish, "wearing some sort of animal-skin hat with the ragged frizz of a tail dangling in back."
For both sisters, the predator's gaze is a kind of enchantment before which they're pretty much helpless. A similar surrender occurs in Hands On, when a 35-year-old divorced woman goes to a plastic surgeon, just for a little Botox. "He had run his fingers under her chin, stroked the flesh below her ears and pressed his thumbs into the hollows there," and to her those caresses feel like a lover's. It doesn't end well.
Two of the stories, Sin Dolor and The Unlucky Mother of Aquiles Maldonado, read like salutes to Gabriel García Márquez, not just in their Latin American settings but in their touches of fable and magic, and their glimpses into the hidden human heart. The title character of Sin Dolor is the seventh child of a family of taco vendors in a little Mexican town. As his doctor tells us, "He came into the world like all the rest of them — like us, that is — brown as an iguana and flecked with the detritus of afterbirth."
But this baby is remarkable: He feels no pain. He doesn't cry when the doctor slaps his behind. Four years later, he doesn't cry when he picks two coals out of the fire and holds them until his hands are charred — his mother is alerted only by the roasting smell, "just like goat. Only different."
The doctor wants to find the source of the boy's ability to withstand pit bull attacks, broken legs and scorpion stings without flinching. The child's father wants to make money. Soon enough, they discover one thing that can hurt him.
The Unlucky Mother of Aquiles Maldonado is about a Venezuelan who becomes a star playing baseball in the United States — and the hero of his hometown. When kidnappers take his mother for ransom, he risks losing everything to rescue her.
But Marita, his mother, has an unexpected response to being held prisoner for months. Surviving requires all her resources; she knows her captors are more than capable of killing her. Somehow, amid the terror, she becomes more alive than she has ever been.
A similar transformation occurs in La Conchita. A courier, ferrying a human liver for transplant, is having the usual workday, aggressively jockeying through Southern California traffic and thinking his job is pretty important, when a mudslide closes the road.
He's just frustrated until a mud-covered woman appears, banging on his window and begging for help, and he finds himself digging frantically until an arm comes thrusting out of the mud and everything changes.
The book's title story, almost novella length, is based on the true story of Victor of Aveyron. Discovered in southern France in 1797, he was a boy of about 10, naked and filthy, who could not speak and seemed to have grown up on his own in the forest. Boyle follows the wild child's experiences from the time he is first captured through his stays with several caretakers.
While they are debating whether the boy is an example of Rousseau's Noble Savage or a freak to be institutionalized, Boyle shows us how it feels for a child who has no memory of ever being indoors to be confined within four walls.
The utter strangeness of Victor's experience is lost on the people who believe they are helping him. Every one of them, from the government commissioner to the man who runs the orphanage to the doctor at the Paris home for deaf children who tries to educate the boy, has his own agenda.
Limited by their own rigid views of the world, none of them can see the wild child clearly. They dismiss him as unable to communicate, but we, in Boyle's skillful hands, see his desperate attempts to join a human race too far from the wild to open its heart.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs. tampabay.com/arts.