Poor Stanley McCormick. The depraved son of one of the greatest inventors of the nineteenth century, Stanley is doomed to spend most of his life confined to an enormous estate in Southern California while his wife, Katherine, spares no expense searching for the doctor who can cure him. For two decades Stanley leads a limited existence at Riven Rock, accompanied by a group of well-paid nurses, gardeners, cooks, and psychologists. And as the world outside struggles with war and disease, survives physical and economic disaster, and witnesses dramatic social change, Stanley continues to make diminutive steps toward achieving a normal life while his millions continue to pile up. Unfortunately, even Stanley’s considerable wealth won’t buy him his sanity or freedom from the luxurious prison that he helped build.
But Stanley’s palatial prison is just one of many ironies contained in this whimsical work of historical fiction—and which characterize it as a truly Boyle-esque tale. There is Katherine’s steadfast fidelity to a marriage that was never consummated; Eddie, the philandering playboy, who tosses his conquests aside as soon as he tires of them, but who hungers for the one woman he can’t have; and Stanley’s violent, sexual aggression towards women, whom he loves with “an incendiary passion that is indistinguishable from hate.” Boyle also manages to inject notes of high hilarity into what is basically a very sad story. The various doctors with their respective theories and styles could have stepped out of a Marx Brothers musical, as could the scene in which Katherine accompanies Julius the ape to an elegant hotel. And Stanley’s treatment of the poor German teacher he drags home to please Katherine is as comical as it is heartbreaking. Another technique typically employed by Boyle is hyperbole. The author often populates his novels with larger-than-life figures: the richest man in America, the most clueless of doctors, the most overbearing of mothers, and, in the case of Katherine, a woman possessing the kind of intellectual brilliance and strength of character that, almost by necessity, accompanies a blind insensitivity to the needs of someone as fragile as Stanley. Irony, comedy, and hyperbole render this and Boyle’s other novels unforgettable, transforming an historic footnote into a luminous, illuminating work of fiction that says as much about contemporary America as it does about the historical figures it depicts.
It is the role of the literary historian to paint a vivid picture from the outlines that fact provides. But the writer who chooses to use true life as a springboard toward a largely imagined story faces, perhaps, a greater challenge. He or she must impose on the facts moods and themes that feel organic to the history they represent. T. C. Boyle has a wonderful talent for turning history into fiction. In Riven Rock, as with his earlier novel, The Road to Wellville, Boyle starts with a germ of fact and a few larger-than-life personalities and spins a marvelous tale—the details of which can strain credulity. (According to Boyle, some of the most outrageous incidents in this novel are actually true.) But he has chosen to keep his readers in the dark about where history ends and fiction begins. So be it. In his capable hands, deft as a magician’s, we are willing to suspend disbelief.
The award-winning author of seven novels and four collections of short stories, T. Coraghessan Boyle was born in Peekskill, New York and taught high school English there after graduating from the State University of New York at Potsdam. He continued his education at the University of Iowa’s famed Writers’ Workshop, where he finished Descent of Man, his first collection of short fiction. He went on to publish three others—Greasy Lake, If the River Was Whiskey, andWithout a Hero—establishing himself as a master of the genre. Over the past two decades, T. C. Boyle has also written several wonderfully diverse novels: Water Music, an 18th-century picaresque; Budding Prospects, about a group of hapless marijuana farmers; World’s End, an historical novel about his native upstate New York for which he won the 1988 PEN/Faulkner Award for American Fiction; East Is East, about a Japanese sailor and a southern writers’ colony; The Road to Wellville, a comic look at a turn-of-the-century health spa; and The Tortilla Curtain, about ethnic strife in Southern California.
“A sustained, wise and enthralling portrait of America’s lost past. . . . The author’s best and perhaps most unusual book.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Filled with good writing and richly observed scenes; it has humanity and humor in abundance.”—D. M. Thomas, The New York Times Book Review
“Boyle combines his gift for historical re-creation with his dazzling powers as a storyteller. . . . Riven Rock is as romantic as it is informative, as colorful as it is convincing.”—The Boston Sunday Globe
“Boyle’s most affecting book. . . . His dialogue is tone-perfect. His storytelling . . . is mesmerizing.”—New York Newsday
“Deftly plotted. . . The craziest love story imaginable, but a love story nevertheless. . . one that chills the bones as you read . . . . Vintage Boyle.”—Kirkus Reviews
Also by T.C. Boyle
If you enjoyed Riven Rock, you’ll want to read these other Penguin works by T. C. Boyle:
Felix Nasmyth’s dreams of easy money — from harvesting a crop of marijuana — soon get nipped in the bud in “a first-rate picaresque adventure” (Los Angeles Times).
DESCENT OF MAN
A Norse poet overcomes bard-block. Lassie abandons Timmy for a randy coyote. In seventeen slices of life, Boyle shows just what the “evolution” of mankind has wrought.
“Madness that hits you where you live.” — Houston Chronicle
EAST IS EAST
A young Japanese seaman jumps ship off the Georgia coast and swims into a nest of genteel ladies, rabid rednecks, and the denizens of an artists’ colony.
“A hilarious black farce about racial stereotypes.” — The New York Times
GREASY LAKE AND OTHER STORIES
“Satirical fables of contemporary life, so funny and acutely observed that they might have been written by Evelyn Waugh as sketches for . . . Saturday Night Live.” — The New York Times
IF THE RIVER WAS WHISKEY
Boyle tears through the walls of contemporary society to reveal a world at once comic and tragic, droll and horrific in sixteen magical, provocative stories.
“Writing at its very, very best.” — USA Today
THE ROAD TO WELLVILLE
This wickedly comic novel centers around Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and his infamous turn-of-the-century health spa in Battle Creek, Michigan.
“A marvel, enjoyable from beginning to end.” — The New York Times Book Review
THE TORTILLA CURTAIN
Boyle illuminates the many potholes along the road to the elusive American Dream. A freak accident brings two couples — illegal immigrants Cándido and América Rincón, and yuppie liberals Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher — together in a tragicomedy of error and misunderstanding.
Penguin Readers Guide Available
Ned Rise, thief and whoremaster, and Mungo Park, explorer, travel from London to Africa.
“A dark and sprawling, ribald, hilarious, cruel, exotic, and . . . engrossing flight of the literary imagination.” — Los Angeles Times
WITHOUT A HERO
In fifteen tales, Boyle depicts a wide range of Americans: a college football player who knows only defeat, a real estate tycoon on safari in Bakersfield, California, and others.
“Sharp, rueful, malevolently funny.” — The New York Times
A collision with history leads Walter Van Brunt to search for his long-lost father in this PEN/Faulkner Award-winning novel.
“Zany, different, and intellectually engaging . . . a winner.” — Glamour
Now available as a Viking hardcover:
T. C. BOYLE STORIES
A virtual feast of the short story — sixty-eight tales clothed in the trademark Boyle prose, including seven never before in print.
This is your fourth historical novel, after Water Music, World’s End and The Road to Wellville. How have you developed as a writer in this genre? Over the years, what have you learned about writing historical fiction?
To my mind, I’m not writing historical novels—in the conventional sense, that is. I don’t think the traditional historical novel works, because the historical impulse—the research—overwhelms the aesthetic vision. I’d say instead that I’m writing contemporary novels with historical settings. I’m more interested in how the past is reflected in the present than I am with replicating history. Then too, of course, there is my satirical bent—I’m having good fun with our universal human foibles, those that persist from time immemorial. And so, we have The Road to Wellville, about our desire for eternal youth and health, not to mention the nostrums that go with it, or Riven Rock, about marriage and sexuality.
What have I learned? To let the story take precedence. In the case of Riven Rock, I am retelling a true story, one so bizarre—and so much like a novel—that my task is primarily to dramatize and illuminate it. That said, I nonetheless have to decide what to emphasize and what to play down, so as to allow the themes to develop.
What are the differences in the way you approach writing contemporary fiction as opposed to historical fiction?
There really is no difference in the way I approach a novel with a historical setting from the way I might engage one with a contemporary setting—The Tortilla Curtain or East Is East, for example. I come up with an idea—or a subject, very broad in its scope—and read and explore until it begins to narrow. Of course, with a novel set in current times, the metaphors are a bit easier because of the frame of reference—in a historical piece, the author is constrained by the laws of anachronism. Usually. Though Stanley Elkin, in George Mills and elsewhere, was a wonderful exception. That is the beauty of writing fiction: there are no rules.
How did you happen upon the story of Stanley and Katherine McCormick? What compelled you to write a novel about them?
This one is easy. I moved from the gloomy dystopia of L.A. and The Tortilla Curtain to the gloomy utopia of Santa Barbara andRiven Rock. I discovered that those emerald hills of the Santa Ynez range conceal a whole psychopathologia of sad and refreshingly bizarre tales. The story of Katherine and Stanley came to me courtesy of our local newspaper and a book about the great estates of Montecito. What intrigues me most about their story is what is revealed in the first line of the prologue: what would it be like for a man to be removed from the sight and company of women for twenty years? And more, and worse: what would it be like for the wife of such a man?
How did the character of Eddie O’Kane emerge? Did you always mean for him to play such a pivotal role in the novel?
Eddie O’Kane. Again, here is where the art of the novel takes precedence over the factuality of the story as historical sources report it. My problem: how does one center a novel around a schizophrenic “sexual maniac” who assaults women on sight? And how does one make such a character ultimately sympathetic, more a victim of his mental illness—and upbringing—than a villain? The obvious answer is to explore his mind, as I attempt to do, but also to view him from the outside. Katherine—and Eddie O’Kane, an invented character—give me the ability to do this. The fact is that Stanley had several male nurses, and four in particular with whom he was quite close—the four who came with him from Massachusetts. The fiction is Eddie. He became, for me, Stanley’s alter ego, his döppelganger: a man considered perfectly normal despite his casual brutality toward and mistrust of the women he loves. His descendants are out there right now, their elbows propped up on the polished mahogany of every club and singles bar in America. Fortunately (for me, for Eddie, and for the story), he grew up and became humanized by a mature relationship with the indomitable and irresistible Giovanella Dimucci (and who could resist a woman with a name like that?).
You have said that, in writing Riven Rock, you wanted to explore issues of fidelity and loyalty. With that objective, how did you develop Stanley’s and Katherine’s relationship?
Katherine, in my mind, is the protagonist of this story. Her marriage was tragic—as dysfunctional as any marriage ever, aside maybe from the point of view of some of Bluebeard’s wives—but she was too strong to be broken by it. Too strong, perhaps, to give in to love in the first place. And yet she believed in her marriage vows, in duty and obligation and love—as odd as it may seem to us today, with our casual alliances and disposable marriages. She did love Stanley, because there was some essential core of innocence and sweetness to him that his disease obscured, and while his confinement gave her the excuse to travel in society (almost as if she were a widow) and to pursue her interests in the cause of feminism, she nonetheless protected him and sought a cure for him to the end of his life.
What did your research teach you about Stanley’s mental illness—and schizophrenia in general? How do you think this treatment would have been different if he were alive today?
My research in psychiatry confirmed what I’d believed at the outset: that schizophrenia is an inherited disease. But my re-reading of Freud was instructive: fashion (and the idiocy of the politically correct) aside, Stanley’s sexual problem, layered atop his schizophrenia, is classically Freudian. But it was more than reading that gave me my insight into Stanley—I have had two close friends who are schizophrenic, and I drew on my recollections of them to try to grasp the way in which Stanley perceived the world.
As for the second part of the question, it’s obvious that we understand schizophrenia a great deal better than did the psychiatrists represented in this book. I don’t expect Stanley would have been “cured” today, but certainly pharmaceutical treatment would have meliorated some of his suffering.
If Riven Rock were written as pure fiction, how do you think you would have changed the story? Do you ever feel impeded by the facts when you are writing historical fiction?
An interesting question. And an impossible one to answer. As I’ve said above, I was attracted to the story because it is true, because it is a novel in truth—we respond to stories because they reflect something valid about us and our experience. That said, I do not feel at all constrained to “stick to the facts” when writing a story based on an actual incident. I am not a reporter, nor a historian or a biographer. I am a novelist, trying to make sense of my own life and feelings and thoughts, growing, with each story and novel, toward some sort of apprehension of human life on this planet.
Comedy figures largely in all your fiction. Why is that? What do you think makes a writer “funny?”
Comedy is my mode of dealing with tragedy and despair. What do we call it—gallows humor? Black humor? Sardonic, bleak, stripped-to-the-bone humor? I do feel that the tragic and poignant can be made even more powerful, more affecting, if the writer takes the reader by surprise, that is, puts him or her into a comic universe and then introduces the grimmest sort of reality. Flannery O’Connor taught me this, in stories like “Good Country People” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and especially in a novel like Wise Blood.
What makes a writer funny is hard to define in the abstract—we know it when we see it, and roar, shake and slobber in response. And we know when an unfunny writer—an unfunny person—attempts to be funny and falls flat. I don’t know. I guess comedy is inbred, part of a writer’s gifts, an individual way of seeing the world and revealing it in such a way that others see it too. But listen to me. I’ll try again: comedy is organic to the work, just as the characters, plot, and metaphors are—you can’t force it or it falls flat. Yes?