T. Coraghessan Boyle: World’s End
Boyle is from Peekskill, which is Washington Irving country, so it is no surprise that he would write a Washington Irvingesque novel set in that area. His theme, or at least one of them, is a surprising but old one, namely that we inherit our parents’ character traits and that these are passed down through the generations. Zola for example, was making a career out of this theme in his Rougon-Macquart series, written at the end of the nineteenth century. Of course, Boyle is no Zola and that is probably more in his favour. Zola was a strict realist. Boyle is not, though the brutal realism of life both in the seventeenth century and at the end of the twentieth century is omnipresent here. But, of course, his trademark zany humour, the usual improbabilities and language games, with the addition of a few ghosts and ghouls will take us well away from Zolaesque fiction.
Boyle tells the intertwined stories of three groups of people. The first are the Kitchawank Indians (called Mohonk), living on the land owned by the second group, the Dutch landlords (called van Wart), and sharing that land with Dutch tenant farmers (called van Brunt). Not only do we follow them in the twentieth century, we also follow them in the seventeenth century. The main character is Walter van Brunt. The past visits him frequently, particularly with his father’s involvement in the Peekskill Riots, helping to carry out attacks on communists and blacks, while shouting America for Americans!. The curse of the van Brunts is betrayal and Walter, teaming up with the hated Depeyster van Wart, while having an affair with Depeyster’s daughter, Mardi, continues the family tradition just as the van Warts will continue to abuse their power and the Mohonks to seek revenge. It is not just family traits that reappear. Walter will lose a foot in a motorcycle accident, just as one of his ancestors also lost a foot in an accident. In short, Boyle, in his humorous way, is telling us that the past is always with us and we cannot shrug it off. Sons betray their fathers and vice versa and neither lives up to the other’s expectations, though both are ultimately more or less the same. As always, it is great fun, superbly well told and has more of a serious edge than some of his other works.
First published 1987 by Viking