Speaking of T.C. Boyle
At the Lobero Theatre, Monday, May 22.
Reviewed by Matt Kettmann
Old-time storytelling tradition blended with biting pop culturalism — what could be better fodder for a Speaking of Stories evening? And who’s a more fitting author than our very own T.C. Boyle, the master of weaving modern life’s quirks and extravagances into otherwise timeless yarns? Monday night’s spoken story buffet spanned Boyle’s illustrious, short story-laced career, from 1977’s “The Champ” and 1988’s “Zapatos” to “Swept Away,” from 2005’s Tooth and Claw, “La Conchita,” his meditation on the mudslide that appeared last December in The New Yorker, and the unpublished “Hands On.”
First off was “The Champ,” the tale of an aging food-eating-contest prizefighter read in perfect boxing movie voices by Charles de L’Arbre. As Angelo “The Champ” D prepares for his showdown against cocksure up-and-comer Kid Gullet — who claims to “float like a parfait, sting like a tamale” — the crowd, well, ate it up, eventually pulling for The Champ, who finds redemption during their showdown, when everyone from Ronald McDonald to Colonel Sanders is watching.
“Zapatos,” read by Joseph Velasco, is a story about a fictional country with high taxes, money called “huevos,” an “unfriendly” government, and an uncle whose sole desire is to sell Italian loafers. The uncle conspires with the narrator — his nephew who’s studying semantics, hermeneutics, and the “deconstruction of deconstruction” in college — in a cross-country scheme to import the shoes. It works, the uncle goes on to work for the president, and our narrator starts studying business because “now the government’s not so unfriendly after all.”
Well-known TV and screen actor Joe Spano held a pint of dark ale and donned an Irish accent for “Swept Away,” a longer story about windblown love, whiskey-aided loss, and an American “birdwoman” who changed an island. Boyle’s tale weaves “the artist formerly known as Prince” with characters at Magnusson’s Bar, who watch their good friend Robbie fall for the birdwoman he saved after she was struck in the face by a cat. As could be guessed, wind plays an end to the story as well.
Julie Pearl took the flower-fronted podium to read the as-yet-unpublished “Hands On,” a modern fable set in Santa Barbara about a woman who goes to a plastic surgeon for Botox treatment, only to fall for him in her painful quest for utter improvement. Pearl’s reading was perhaps the most lively of the night — although it was a third-person story, you could feel the pain in the heart of the protagonist, a divorcee on the verge of 35 with a silent house and longing heart.
Lastly was T.C. Boyle, who, after saying that the night had been “pure nirvana,” began reading “La Conchita,” a fictional first-person story of how a delivery driver experiences personal change amidst the January 2005 mudslide tragedy. As such, it was a particularly engaging tale, especially for me, since I was there as a news reporter just an hour after the mountain fell. (He even got the consistency of the mud correct: “pancake batter.”) Boyle, dressed in a flamboyant yellow sport coat and waving his arms wildly, excellently showed how the road-ragin’, gun-toting deliveryman who was stopped by the slide turned — thanks to tragedy — into a man who could only focus on digging out more buried souls. It was a moving end to a mostly humorous and fun-loving evening, one that only the words of T.C. Boyle could create.