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Continued: Human experiments

  • Article by: ELLEN AKINS SPECIAL TO THE STAR TRIBUNE
  • Last update: January 23, 2010 - 11:44 PM
The title story of T.C. Boyle's new collection, "Wild Child," is a reimagining of the discovery of a feral child, the subject of melodrama since 1798, when the boy was found in the forests of Napoleonic France, to Truffaut's famous film of 1969, "L'Enfant Sauvage." In the story -- and in history -- a boy of about 12, named Victor by teachers who tried to civilize him, is taken from his feral state to a curious and pitiful form of dependence that is neither quite animal nor human.

That this story -- a novella, really -- anchors Boyle's collection isn't too surprising. However odd it might be, in its historical content and somewhat expository approach, the story is in many ways the epitome of Boyle's style. This author is unfailingly entertaining. He is smart, clever, funny -- and his stories almost always have the feel of exercises in which he is trying something new, following a fictional proposition to its conclusion, toying with an idea.

Rare is the Boyle story in which a reader really cares about a character, let alone a protagonist. And yet, all of these characters do elicit the same sort of distant sympathy that attends Victor: They are at the mercy of circumstances, tricked up by Boyle, perhaps, but no less moving for that -- and that is Boyle's artistry.

In "Admiral," a young woman is paid a handsome fee to baby-sit for a cloned Afghan hound; and the question of what her time, and her life, is worth, is measured against the seemingly mad passion of the dog's owners. In "La Conchita," a man delivering a liver for transplant and caught in a mudslide is torn between the needs of the waiting recipient and the victims of nature's vengeance.

"Ash Wednesday" thrusts us into the story of a boy buffeted among father figures and his neighbor, a Japanese immigrant whose life, and whose wife, represent a world of order and tradition that this boy, in his ignorance, can only hope to destroy.

And finally, there is "Sin Dolor" ("Without Pain"), the story of a boy who feels no pain, a curiosity and science project to the narrator, a doctor. Turned into a sort of circus freak by his father, who shows off the boy's imperviousness by piercing and burning him before a rapt, paying public, the child is another one of Boyle's experiments, testing the limits and margins of humanity, as we readers are asked to feel something for a cipher made real and worthy of sympathy by Boyle's remarkable art.

Ellen Akins is a novelist in Cornucopia, Wis.

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  • Wild Child by T.C. Boyle

  • WILD CHILD AND OTHER STORIES

    By: T.C. Boyle.

    Publisher: Viking, 304 pages, $25.95.

    Review: T.C. Boyle is funny, smart and entertaining, and these stories are all experimental and imaginative. But it's rare for the stories to elicit sympathy for the main characters.

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