T.C. Boyle, like the megalomaniac American overachievers (John Harvey Kellogg, Alfred Kinsey and Frank Lloyd Wright) at the heart of his muscular, quasi-historical novels The Road to Wellville, The Inner Circle and last year's The Women, runs on a powerful mix of ambition and brilliance.
The title novella of Wild Child, Boyle's energetic, engaging ninth collection of short stories, also involves hubris. It's a vivid reimagining of the story of the enfant sauvage of Aveyron. Left to die in a Languedoc forest by his stepmother, the boy survived on a foraged diet of raw tubers and rodents.
After he is captured in the late 1790s, the Frenchmen who attempt to civilize him are convinced that in studying this so-called wild child, they can settle fundamental questions about human nature. How? They will "put to the test the thesis propounded by Locke and Condillac: Was man born a tabula rasa, unformed and without ideas, ready to be written upon by society, educable and perfectible? Or was society a corrupting influence, as Rousseau supposed, rather than the foundation of all things right and good?"
The results of their efforts are equivocal at best, and not what they wished. But Boyle's story and his book's epigraph, from Henry David Thoreau's "Walking" — "In wilderness is the preservation of the world" — make his leanings clear.
The 13 other stories in Wild Child, almost all attention-grabbers, are set largely in the California hills or working-class upstate New York that have provided the backdrop for much of Boyle's fiction. They focus not on outsized overachievers but on regular Joes confronted with moral dilemmas that crop up routinely in our daily lives. In several, characters take up with lovers who champion causes they find abhorrent, including a woman's insistence that biology textbooks be slapped with stickers disclaiming evolution as just a theory.
Other characters discover a moral compass and heroism they didn't know they possessed. These include a young girl who has to decide whether to tell the "hurtful truth" about a car accident involving her drunken father in the masterful story "Balto," and a man who gets stuck in a mudslide while transporting a donated liver in "La Conchita" — delivering, in the process, a rant about freeway drivers that is classic Boyle at full boil.
"The Unlucky Mother of Aquiles Maldonado" takes us to the jungles of Estado Bolivar, where Venezuela's highest-paid baseball star, a closer for the Baltimore Orioles, learns, after his mother is kidnapped by guerrillas, that his 98 mph fastball matters — but isn't all that matters. Each of the tales in this entertaining collection show us what the driver in "La Conchita" calls "the real deal" — things that really matter.