San Miguel

  • T. C. Boyle
  • Viking Adult
  • 384 pp.

Three loosely connected tales darkly chronicle the ups and downs of a pioneering life on a desolate island off the California coast.

Reviewed by Barry Wightman

Thomas Coraghessan Boyle, speaking of his novel Greasy Lake, about three hipster college kids, told The Paris Review that “the world, far from being your oyster, is a dangerous place of shadow and dislocation and death.”

Coming from a novelist with a distinctly edgy vibe, we’re on board. Good stories come out of that stuff. Tell us more.

Boyle then said, “I don’t mean to pull a Beckett on you here, but I do not have a congenial view of the parameters of human life as we know it.”

Yes. Gloom. Shadows. Death. It’s what a lot of great fiction is all about. Think Edgar Allen Poe, the Brontes, Thomas Hardy and, dare I say, Stephen King. And T. C. Boyle, with his extroverted, hip persona and maximalist brand has produced an impressive body of work. We can dig it.

So it’s a bit of puzzlement, a curve ball change-up from left field, to consider Boyle’s latest and unusually (for him) conventional novel, San Miguel. First, the cover — in soft focus, a woman in a Victorian frock on a windswept field of gold, her back to us, strides off into the distance. Cozy chick lit? (Is T. C. toying with us?) Oh, but wait, upon further investigation, we detect a whiff of danger — the woman is seen from behind, from low amongst the weeds. Who knows? Maybe this is Halloween 10 and whatever is doing the watching is malevolent of spirit and events will spiral quickly out of control with much ensuing suffering.

Next, we encounter the novel’s Epigraph, the opening of a 1938 poem by W. H. Auden, “Musee Des Beaux Arts””

“About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone is eating or opening a window
Or just walking dully along.”

Walking dully along? Hey, this is T. C. Boyle, no worries, things are going to be cool — dark but cool.

Be worried. Be very worried. San Miguel is a beautifully written but ultimately disappointing triptych of novellas in which nothing happens. Darkly.

The novel consists of three loosely connected tales set on the small desolate island of San Miguel, just off the California coast, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s a sheep ranch inhabited only by caretakers and, well, sheep. Lots of sheep. And fog.

The novel opens and the first of our three heroines, Marantha Waters appears:

“She was coughing, always coughing, and sometimes she coughed up blood. The blood came in a fine spray, plucked from the fibers of her lungs and pumped full of air as if it were perfume in an atomizer. Or it rose in her mouth like a hot metallic syrup, burning with the heat inside her till she spat it into the porcelain pot …”
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm it’s not. But that’s fine writing.

Our first view of San Miguel Island shows strange but unfulfilled promise:

“ … she saw it as a tan lump marbled with bands of the purest white, as if it were a well-aged cut of beef laid out on the broad blue plate of the ocean for her and nobody else.”
Odd, but lush, lovely prose. And soon, San Miguel Island begins to live and breathe, not unlike Hardy’s gloomy heath in The Return of the Native. Hardy writes, “… for when other things sank brooding to sleep the heath appeared slowly to awake and listen.”

But on San Miguel, it’s quiet. Marantha reads, among other things, Wuthering Heights. Her manic and damaged Civil War veteran husband, Will, is hell-bent on converting the ranch into an empire of great riches for his wife and rebellious stepdaughter, Edith (who stars in the novel’s second section). Life is pretty tough on San Miguel. Readers of a certain age may recall the ’60s TV show Green Acres — life on a hardscrabble farm can be lousy but funny. Sadly, T. C. Boyle left his sly comedic voice and ironic satire on the other side of the Santa Barbara Channel.

Don’t get me wrong. I love romantic gloom. Moody meditations on place? Right up my alley. Brontes, Hardy? Love ’em. And yet.

Marantha: “It’s like watching Wuthering Heights,” she says as they were setting the table for dinner, “like the wild moors with their lowing herds and wandering flocks … Only where’s my Heathcliff?”

Exactly. How about some of the fire and fizz of a Heathcliff? On San Miguel, life dully happens, the novel chronicling the ups and downs of a pioneering life on the edge of the great American continent. Marantha’s cough gets worse. Frisky Edith teases the slow but steady hired hand Jimmie. She dreams of the theatre. Elise and Herbie (third novella) have two daughters. They grow. Elise teaches the girls. Storms come, it’s wet, it’s cold, it’s dry, it’s hot.

Just when the reader feels that the flat-lining narrative is picking up — yes, this must be when something big happens — it doesn’t. Just when you think there’s going to be a turn for Marantha (or Edith or Elise) or that something mildly exciting is about to happen because he has just arrived or the ship came in or she can finally leave the prison that is the island of San Miguel ... well, sorry, no. Life goes on. And on. The gloom spreads, the world runs down and nothing changes, it all remains the same and nobody ever has a nice day. Well, hardly ever.

Okay, there is that Spanish sheep shearer, a suicide and World War II injects some much-needed fizz into Elise’s story but it’s too late. I don’t mean to pull a Beckett on you here, but on San Miguel, nothing happens — thrice. Beautifully.

Barry Wightman, fiction editor of Hunger Mountain, a literary journal of the arts in Montpelier, Vt., has written a novel, Pepperland, a revolutionary, technology rock ’n roll love story that is coming soon. He’s been a corporate marketing guy and a contributing essayist to WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio, and he leads a rather vintage rock ’n roll band.

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