The characters in these Boyle stories are almost always victims of bizarre circumstance.
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 However odd it might be, in its historical content and somewhat expository approach, the story is in many ways the epitome of Boyle's style.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.