Robert Boswell’s 1985 collection of short stories, Dancing in the Movies, was an impressive debut that showcased a rare talent—a writer able to immerse himself so thoroughly in the consciousness of his characters that it was startling to realize they were nothing more than constructs of words and sentences. The title story, concerned with themes of romantic and racial disharmony and set in the milieu of heroin users following Bob Marley’s death, was also notable for its unflinching portrayal of a heroin trip. On the basis of this slender collection alone, Boswell was clearly a literary voice to be taken seriously.
Since then he has published five novels, including the well-received Century’s Son and Mystery Ride, and another story collection, Living to Be 100, and two works of nonfiction. It’s fair to say that these works have all served to consolidate his reputation.
His newest collection, The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards, may not do a great deal to further that rep, but it’s unlikely to hurt it much, either. Some familiar themes crop up—there are a lot of wayward souls here, lost adolescents and substance abuse—and plenty of compelling writing. There are a few head-scratchers as well, to be expected in any sampling of short fiction. This is to say nothing of the truly atrocious cover.
Unsurprisingly, the longest pieces here are the most satisfying. “No River Wide” opens the proceedings with a tale of two women friends whose lives have taken them in different directions, but who now reunite at a Florida cocktail party where sexual posturing and maneuvering are taking place on multiple levels. Newly-widowed Greta has come to Florida at the behest of her divorcee friend Ellen, only to find layer after layer of expectation stripped away as the evening progresses. “No River Wide” encapsulates many of the tropes that will echo through this collection: the unreliability of friends, the insidious influence of substances (in this case, alcohol), and the inevitability of longing despite the uncertainty of ever really knowing what you want.
In “A Walk in Winter”, a man named Conrad returns to his rural, wintry homeland to identify the remains of a long-dead corpse, which may or may not be his mother’s, and who may or may not have been murdered by his father. “Supreme Beings” weaves a multi-stranded tale of Father McEwan, who is tortured by lustful thoughts, Aluela, the girl he most often lusts after (especially when paddling her bare bottom at the behest of her mother), and Teddy, a marginally-employed and none-too-bright youth who develops an obsession with the local sham psychic. Mixed in with this is the story—or lack of one—of Aluela’s absent father. A lot of people run off from their families in these stories, parents and children alike.
The title story is perhaps the most layered. Placed last for maximum impact, “The Heyday of the Insentitive Bastards” spins a tale of misspent youth and criminal recklessness. Narrator Keen and best buddy Clete move in with a crew of amoral house-sitters who are busily selling off anything the landlords left behind—appliances large and small, silverware, jewelry—in order to buy drugs. Predictably, complications ensue, but those complications are themselves anything but predictable. Boswell is adept at manipulating tone, and what starts out as a shaggy-dog would-ya-believe-it story morphs almost imperceptibly into something altogether more brooding and sinister. The reader is apt to develop that sinking feeling in his/her stomach as the story lurches along, and rightly so.
Throughout, Boswell turns memorable phrases without calling great attention to his linguistic cleverness. “Men without women wear ugly shoes, she has noticed… They’re like towels too often laundered: dull and soft, transparent in places, of no use but to buff a car.” Some images are almost photographic in their clarity: “She lifted the beer, the rim of the bottle’s mouth touching her bottom lip as she spoke, as if she were addressing it.” Elsewhere, describing a run-down car: “The engine invented a new automotive emotion, a faint whispering weep.”
The funniest story by far—this book is not, in general, a collection given over to big yuks—is “In a Foreign Land”. The first-person narrator, an ad writer of some renown, attends a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife’s best friend, and everyone is deliciously vicious: “Her husband, a stranger to me, had about him the ordinariness often ascribed to serial killers,” our narrator informs us. “Sort of a bland Regis Philben, if you follow my drift.”
Such moments are few, apart from this story; despite occasional sprinklings of irony or wryness, this collection is overridingly severe. Readers seeking lighthearted diversion would more profitably seek it elsewhere. Those open to a more substantial meal, however, could do worse than this often engaging, sometimes challenging collection.