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The Must List 2006: Books

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T.C. BOYLE
Must Storyteller

A round the turn of the century, T.C. Boyle almost starred in his own TV show on Fox. The idea was this: Each week, why not adapt two of Boyle’s celebrated short stories — he’s written about 100 or so, mostly little black comedies — for the small screen, and then have Boyle introduce them, like a modern-day Rod Serling? ”It’s the only time Hollywood sucked me in,” admits the author ruefully, sitting on the porch of his guesthouse near Santa Barbara and sharing a bottle of local chardonnay. ”I thought it would revolutionize the world, I really did. The format would’ve been great: I’m the host, I come out, I tell a couple jokes, they see the show. I woulda loved it, and it coulda introduced my stories to a very wide audience, and I think America would’ve been a better place for it!”

Boyle, an unapologetic ”ham of a writer” and ”crazy egomaniac,” busts himself up with that one. ”I’m sorry!” he laughs, grinning, a frond of cotton-candyish dark hair suspended over one eye. ”My critics will hear that and they’ll be like, ‘Who is this motherf—er? Why is he saying this?’ But I really believe it’s true.” As befits a 57-year-old in a black leather jacket over a black hoodie, with a clasp in his ear and a skull ring on his right pinkie, ”Tom” is an old showman and a joker, with a theatrical bearing made, if not for prime time, then at least for the late-night cable-access witching hours. (When he reads on his book tours — Boyle calls them ”performances” instead of ”readings” — he slays ’em.) If only Fox hadn’t pulled out. The network put Night Visions, a horror anthology, on the air instead; it didn’t last the full season. ”And now,” Boyle says, ”I have another life altogether.”

So the author of World’s End and The Tortilla Curtain is not world-famous. It’s just as well: Boyle hasn’t watched a regular TV program since 1972; he loathes the idiot box’s ”numbing effect” on potential book readers. Better yet, he’s been on a hot streak ever since the TV deal fell apart. In 2003, Drop City — which followed a gaggle of 1970s California hippies as they migrated to Alaska — put him on the New York Times best-seller list for the first time and got him nominated for a National Book Award. (He’s sore that he showed up at the ceremony as a ”beauty contestant,” only to lose.) In 2004 he published The Inner Circle, about sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, and last year brought both The Human Fly and Tooth and Claw, his seventh and eighth short-story collections. Already he’s back, this time with Talk Talk (in stores July 10), his third novel in three years — and 11th since he published his first, Water Music, a quarter century ago.

Boyle is a master of meaty premises. His great theme is the indifferent universe, the world closing in — man as just another animal, predator but just as often prey. ”What other theme is there?” Boyle cries. ”That is the theme.” In Talk Talk, Dana Halter is a deaf teacher who gets tossed in jail and stripped of all dignity when a smooth operator named Peck steals her identity. With her boyfriend Bridger in tow, Dana travels cross-country to hunt Peck down, while a vengeful Peck plots a second strike in turn. Universal’s already got the movie rights, with Gary Fleder (Runaway Jury) on deck to direct.

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