T. Coraghessan Boyle and Surviving the Baby Boom

by Jason Sanford


Everything you know about the Baby Boom generation is a lie. Everything they supposedly created—the Civil Rights Movement, the sexual revolution, rock and roll—were the fruit of other generations’ work. But in the end, maybe this doesn’t matter. After all, they meant well. Let them have their delusions of greatness.

This isn’t cynicism. This isn’t revisionist history. This is truth, as learned from the only Baby Boomer who gets it, T. Coraghessan Boyle.

* * *

There are certain themes you encounter over and over in life. Themes which harass you like playground bullies until you stand up and bloody their nose. Call this the thematic version of that old saying, “When a student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

When a person is ready, their theme in life appears.

For too many of my generation—Generation X, the generation immediately following the Baby Boomers—the theme has been dealing with our parent’s generation. Everything we do is seen through the deeds of the BBs.

Want to protest something? The BBs perfected that with the Anti-War protests of the 1960s and ’70s. Want to fight the good fight? The BBs fought one of the noblest fights of the 20th century with the Civil Rights Movement. Want to be greedy and rich? The BBs were the original Yuppies. Want to drown your life in sex, drugs, and rock and roll? The children of the ’60s set the standards in all these areas. The BBs even defined my generation as Generation X (a term first popularized by a certain BB named Douglas Coupland) as a way of denoting that, when compared to the BB, my generation was, well, generic.

During my college years, I once confided to a BB professor that I was tired of continually hearing about his generation. At this comment he smirked and shook his head in pity. “It must be hard for your generation,” he said, “having to live up to all that we did.”

This is my generation’s theme: Dealing with the BBs.

* * *

T. Coraghessan Boyle may be the ultimate BB, but he lacks the generational arrogance so often seen among members of his age group.

First, a short bio:

According to Boyle’s own words, he grew up in a suburb of New York, one of a million fellow BB kids running around and doing whatever they wanted. At age 17, he instituted his first major act of rebellion by changing his middle name from John to Coraghessan. Then, instead of running off to a commune like so many of his generation did during the ’60s and ’70s, Boyle took the straight forward approach of simply finishing college. He later taught for four years at his home town high school before going to the University of Iowa to earn an MFA and Ph.D.

Since then he has published nine novels and more than seventy short stories. He won the Pen/Faulkner award in 1988 for his third novel, World’s End. His short fiction regularly appears in the country’s top magazines.

I would have liked to have known Boyle during the heights of the ’60s because I imagine he wasn’t one of those endless BB radicals spouting revolution and death to the establishment. (After all, what radical goes back to his home town high school to teach?) If this is true, then how ironic that long after his generation’s radicals sold out with the motto “Greed is good,” Boyle has become a true revolutionary. Through his writing, he is now undoing and reimagining everything his generation has done.

For this, every BB should be grateful.

* * *

My life in the BB shadow continued in the mid 1990s when I joined that most BBish of activities, the Peace Corps. They sent me to Thailand, where I taught English at a rural junior high school.

A few months after arriving at my site, a rabid dog bit me. I caught the next bus to Bangkok and, bright and early in the morning, presented myself for my rabies shots at the old colonial house near the Chao Phraya River which served as Peace Corps headquarters. The Peace Corps doctor, a burned-out BB who’d only come to Thailand because her husband worked for the U.S. Embassy, didn’t seem overly interested in my account of the dog bite. From her point of view, volunteers were constantly showing up with a need for rabies shots.

After jabbing my arm with the needle, she handed me a book she’d just finished reading: T.C. Boyle’s The Road to Wellville. “It’s a hoot,” she said. “All about the amazingly stupid things people do to stay young.”

I bit my tongue to avoid segueing from this comment into a discussion about her recent face lift, which was a constant article of humor among the volunteers. Because of the face lift, the doctor’s skin sat stiff and unmoving on her face, a condition highlighted by the splotchy tan she’d received in Thailand’s tropical sun.

As the doctor disposed of the needle, I turned the book over in my hands. The paperback resembled a cereal package, complete with nutritional information panel reading “Serving size: 10 oz (about 1 novel). Servings per book: 1.” Included among the ingredients listed were dried wit, sex (as “a flavoring ingredient”) and certified historical nuts.

How could I pass that up? I thanked the BB for her time and walked to a park near the Chao Phraya River to read.

* * *

The Road to Wellville deals with the most un-BB subject possible, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg of Battle Creek, Michigan, known to history as the inventor of Corn Flakes.

Kellogg accidentally came up with the cereal while running a sanitarium based on his strict dietary beliefs. In a nutshell, Kellogg worshiped a bland outlook on life—no meats, alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, or sex—and thought this regimen would create long life and health for himself and his patients. To make sure his patients stuck to the hardest of these denials—no sex—he also made sure everyone ate Corn Flakes, which he said had antiaphrodisiac properties.

While this may be the historical Kellogg, in The Road to Wellville Boyle takes history and moves it into the present day by mixing in neurotic patients, love triangles, and father/pseudo-son relationships. This is history as told with a totally modern twist, history resembling nothing so much as our present day America obsession on staying young forever through face lifts, botox injections, and implants in every area of the body.

I stayed up all night in my Bangkok guest room reading the novel. The next day, as I received my second rabies shot from the face-lifted BB doctor, it occurred to me that Boyle wasn’t just comparing history to modern America. He was also writing about his generation.

For a generation which came of age eating Corn Flakes and then jumped straight into the sexual revolution, how appropriate that their futile attempts to deny age has its roots in the pseudoscience of Dr. Kellogg.

* * *

After returning from the Peace Corps, I decided to learn more about Boyle and what literary critics thought of his writing. This turned out to be a hard assignment because critics, in their infinite knowledge, have decided that Boyle is a cynical writer who uses humor and weird characters to tell his stories. Almost every evaluation of his work revolves around this supposed fact.

For example, critics use an endless array of clichés to describe Boyle’s work as cynical. Among my favorite are: That he is absurdist. Has a sardonic glee. Writes about America’s lunatic fringe. Exhibits black humor. Is a manic producer. Presents a full-on freak parade. Has never-ending contempt. Sarcasm. Bitter humor. The New York Times, in a review of one of Boyle’s books, even called him the “Jim Carrey of fiction: all broad gestures and mimicry, nervous hyperbole and dazzling razzmatazz.” Many literary critics even dispense with these clichés and say up front that Boyle is cynical.

This viewpoint of Boyle’s work is a shame. Not only does it cause people to misunderstand Boyle’s writing, it always causes people to miss the one unmistakable truth that runs through all of Boyle’s books.

* * *

THE TRUTH ABOUT T. CORAGHESSAN BOYLE:

T. Coraghessan Boyle is attempting to rewrite the history of his generation.

He seeks to redo all the BBs did, or failed to do, with their lives.

He does this out of a sense of human kindness which few other writers possess.

* * *

Sometimes Boyle writes explicitly about the BB. His recent novel, Drop City, focuses on a group of flower children in the early 1970s who live off food stamps at a California commune until, seeking a more authentic existence, they uproot themselves and move to rural Alaska. With the novel’s frank portrayals of BB sexism, racism, and violence, the book is hardly a stereotypical and nostalgic portrayal of commune life. Instead, Boyle explores all aspects of the BBs who dropped out of society during this period and, in doing so, gives one of the best written explanations for why the commune movement in America lived, and died, in such a short amount of time.

Sometimes Boyle writes about the BB using history to mask his intent. His first novel, Water Music, is a fictional account of Scottish explorer Mungo Park’s 1795 travels into the interior of West Africa. Boyle obviously poured over amazing amounts of historical research for the novel. However, while the novel is a fascinating story about a white explorer “discovering” places already populated by people, Boyle also ties the story in with everything he and his generation have learned, such as feminism (as in the character of Park’s fiancée, who received little mention in the official histories of Park) and racism (as seen through the viewpoints of Park’s African guides, whom Boyle also brings back from historical amnesia). So while the novel is historical, it is yet again history as seen through BB eyes.

Some of Boyle’s fiction even explores the history that led to the BB generation. In Boyle’s PEN/Faulkner award-winning novel World’s End, three hundred years of history in the Hudson River region of New York helps the main character, a BB living in 1968, understand how his father sold out his family and Socialist friends during the first rumblings of the McCarthy period (with the BBs, selling out is a major generational issue). In his novel The Inner Circle, Boyle explores Dr. Alfred Kinsey, whose reports on human sexuality set in motion the sexual revolution. In Riven Rock, the characters deal with schizophrenia and mental problems, subjects fully embraced by BBs.

Even when Boyle is writing about history, he’s also writing about what he knows best—his generation.

* * *

Like many in Generation X, I have long believed that the BBs were the epitome of human arrogance. Despite this, I also admired their generation. After all, they had accomplished so much at such a young age: the Civil Rights Movement, the sexual revolution, Rock and Roll, ending a war, bringing down a President.

Of course, anyone who has read even a bit of history knows that these accomplishment of the BBs are hardly theirs to claim and instead belong to the generations before them. The sexual revolution came from the Kinsey report and birth control pills, both products of 1950s research. The leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, like Ralph Abernathy, cut their teeth on civil rights issues in the 1940s and ’50s. Feminism built itself upon the strong shoulders of the women who fought for the right to vote at the turn of the 20th Century.

This is not to downplay what the BBs accomplished. Without the BB foot soldiers, it is doubtful that the older generations could have created so much cultural change in the 1960s and ’70s. In many ways, the BBs are like their parents, the so-called Greatest Generation who fought at an equally young age in the trenches of World War II. By themselves, neither generation could have won their war or created lasting cultural change. To do so required the support and leadership of their parents and grandparents, who were surely as great as the best of the Greatest Generation.

* * *

So is this the goal of Boyle’s fiction? To take away the BBs’ inflated sense of uniqueness and to place them fimrly within the timeline of history?

I believe it is. Because of their sheer numbers, the BBs have dominated the cultural headlines since they first swelled out of their mother’s wombs. However, history cares less about a generation’s PR and more about the substance of what they did, and this is where Boyle comes in. With his novels, he is creating a body of work which showcases the successes and failures of his generation without buying into the typical BB hype. Everything that smacked his generation around—the Kinsey Report, free love, the Civil Rights and Anti-War Movements—are turned on their heads and looked at anew. After all, Boyle knows that the end result of free love was Bill Clinton’s semen on an intern’s dress. That the end result of the Anti-War movement was George Bush’s belief in preemptive wars. He takes this knowledge and reimagines it into his generation’s world.

In many ways, history and fiction are different sides of the same narrative coin. We understand the past by the stories we tell ourselves (stories which we then call “history”). As a result, the way to change how history will one day see your generation is to create new stories about your generation. Boyle understands this.

I no longer hate the BB generation, and I hope that others in my generation come to feel the same way. Yes, the BB is overrated. Yes, the BB will be with us for decades to come. But when you read Boyle’s fiction, you know the BB generation for what it is: just a large number of individuals with individual stories and individual themes, all striving to live, love, and create something which will be remembered after they are gone. Thanks to the fiction of T. Coraghessan Boyle, the BB will be remembered in a much more truthful way than they could otherwise have any reason to hope for.

In short, Boyle’s fiction is the history of the BBs rewritten and updated. History as it has yet to be written. And as someone who has lived his entire life in this generation’s shadow, I am glad that their true history is finally being created.