Author T.C. Boyle still remembers the first time "concerned parents" attempted to ban his writing: "When I first moved to Santa Barbara, I got a phone call from a teacher in Ojai — now, Ojai is an artist community, which you'd think would be very liberal. But they were banning my short story "Greasy Lake" from a textbook because of one curse word in it that a parent happened to find while flipping through the book.
"The teacher was distraught because of all the stories in the book — this is according to him — this was the one that most spoke to the students. It's about teenagers."
Boyle eventually got the the school superintendent on the phone and said, "Look, I'm willing to come to Ojai and meet with the parents and read the story out loud and teach it to them because they couldn't possibly — if they understand the story — see how it doesn't uphold their moral values."
The response: "They will hang you."
"I said, &‘OK, then I'm not coming.'"
But several weeks later, after the story was banned, Boyle held a reading at UC Santa Barbara "and the teacher brought two of his classes of students to come and hear me read in defiance of yahooism."
Now, a similar scenario plays out again. A few weeks ago, parents of Montgomery High School students tried unsuccessfully to ban Boyle's 1995 novel "Tortilla Curtain" from school curriculum, after objecting to its profanity, stereotypes of young Latino girls and graphic depiction of rape.
This weekend, Boyle rolls through the Bay Area on his latest book tour, making his only Bay Area appearance Saturday night at the Dance Palace in Point Reyes Station.
"The (Montgomery) teacher e-mailed me about a month ago and I wrote a little letter to the school board, but I guess that was adjudicated in the proper way. What I said was, &‘Why shouldn't we let English teachers — the experts in this — decide what the curriculum is rather than the random yahoo parent?'"
After nine short-story collections, 12 novels, countless New Yorker short stories, numerous awards and fellowships and a Hollywood adaptation of "The Road to Wellville," it's safe to say he's weathered his fair share of controversy.
"I do take it as a badge of honor," he says. "It's preposterous. Look at what kids are exposed to daily in the pure crap on TV or at the movies or rock and roll — it's a free country. This is art. How many rape scenes do you suppose the average child has seen watching TV in his life?"
Boyle's latest collection of short stories, "Wild Child," doesn't contain any rape scenes or that much profanity. But it does plunder the daily headlines with topical explorations of DUI trials, mudslides and the kidnapping of a professional baseball pitcher's Venezuelan mother. In one story, a Mexican boy is born without the ability to feel pain. In another, a pet-sitter is hired to care for the first genetically cloned dog. Even the title story retells the tale of an abandoned boy found living in the wilds of France in 1797 (the subject of Fran?is Truffaut's film "L'Enfant Sauvage").
At 61, Boyle could be one of his own characters, sporting a scruffy Van Dyke beard and gold ear clasp — often topped off with a beret. He's taught fiction at USC since 1978. With a weakness for historical fiction — whether it be exposing the quirks and oddities of architect Frank Lloyd Wright in "The Women" or cereal inventor Dr. John Harvey Kellogg in "The Road to Wellville" — he's made a career out of a curious topical sensibility often tweaked through wry twists and a biting sense of irony. The perfect example: The animal rights activists in his 1994 story "Carnal Knowledge" who liberate thousands of turkeys from a farm just before Thanksgiving. Only to find, as they're driving home, all the free birds have been slaughtered on the highway.
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