I Walk Between the Raindrops: Stories
Thirteen may be an unlucky number for some, but not for readers of T. C. Boyle’s dazzling new collection of stories, 13 funny, mind-bending, and disturbing tales. Boyle, the author of 18 novels and 11 previous collections of short fiction, is a writer of unlimited energy and talent.
The 13 stories in I Walk Between the Raindrops cover a large aesthetic and psychological landscape. The first and titular story sketches of what, at first, appears to be an ordinary man on an ordinary day in an ordinary bar. But not much is ever ordinary in a Boyle tale. The story “I Walk Between the Raindrops” sends up stitching five vignettes together into something akin to a contemporary Bartleby narrative, shining a light on fathomless loneliness and inexpressible heartache, and ultimately asking the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The second story—“What’s Love Got To Do With It?”—takes the reader into all-too-familiar territory for contemporary Americans: the aftermath of a school shooting. A middle-aged woman encounters a marginalized college student on a train ride from Santa Barbara to Dallas. The young man knew the mass murderer, and it turns out that he is as sad and scary as one might imagine the shooter to be,
Story number three, “Asleep at the Wheel,” brings the reader into the near future in which the AI in cars appears to be more than human, with all the eye-opening ego and insecurity that possibility implies. In tale number four, “Not Me,” Boyle puts sex and need and alienation in a time before #MeToo, creating an era that seems impossible to imagine in today’s world.
“The Apartment,” story number five, reads like a version of Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” set in France, with all the mutual deception and irony that the Milledgeville, Georgia, genius might have manufactured. Boyle has the same sense of tragicomedy that O’Connor had and offers it with a similar razor-edged dialogue. The middle-aged man who waits and waits for a 90-year-old woman to die so that he can get her apartment ends up watching her live to 100 and then 110 and beyond, dying himself as he waits. The old woman has the final laugh. “He made his bet,” she says to her nurse, “now he has to lie in it.”
Boyle’s landscape is filled with dangers. Story number six, “Are These the Circumstances,” is loaded with snakes and spiders. The story that follows it, “The Thirteenth Day,” offers a heart-stopping picture of a couple trapped on an Asian cruise ship during Covid-19.
“Keys to the Kingdom” depicts a famous, self-centered writer who slips into a dark Oedipal dilemma. The next story, “SCS 750,” leaps into the realm of science fiction and a world where facial recognition runs amok. It’s science fiction, but the picture of an ostensibly benign, humanistic Big Brother seems all too possible and familiar.
“Big Mary,” the 10th tale, chronicles the evolution and devolution of a group of Blues musicians who encounter a young woman who sings like Janis Joplin. “The Hyena,” the story that follows it, portrays a group of people poisoned by infected bread. The poisoning, like the ergot contamination that most likely served as the catalyst for the Salem Witchcraft trials, gives rise to a mass hallucination. Or, the reader wonders at the end, is it actually reality? The 12th story, “The Shape of a Teardrop,” may be (at least for a parent) the most frightening in the collection. It concerns a husband and wife who desperately try to get their adult son to move out of the house. By the end of the story, the son, now 31, has proven himself to be one of the shallowest, most self-consumed unreliable narrators on literary record.
In the last story in the collection, “Dog Lab,” Boyle arranges a Sophie’s Choice for the main character, a medical student assigned to do practice surgery on a dog he grows to care about. In the final story, Boyle once again defies the reader’s expectations by striking a note of sympathy and love in a symphony of much darker music.
These 13 stories are so skillful that any reader might wonder if Boyle were actually capable of walking between raindrops.