Just as Dostoevsky remarked that his generation of Russian writers ‘came out from Gogol’s “Overcoat”’, so the modern American novel has been said to have two fathers, its copious splendours springing either from Hawthorne’s letter or Melville’s whale. Frank Kermode saw them as divergent: ‘one lean and self-absorbed, the other heavy, expansive, determined to contain a world’. Like any loose net, this one misses a great number of small and exotic creatures, but it catches some big fish too, and we can confidently identify novels of Hawthorne-like stringency or Melvillean splash in the work of E L Doctorow (The Waterworks; Billy Bathgate), Philip Roth (Everyman; Portnoy’s Complaint), and Joyce Carol Oates (Black Water; them).
T C Boyle’s new novel displays its debt to Melville in its milieu, its character drawing (or daubing) and its vocabulary. Melville liked to invent negatives, as Boyle does with ‘lipstickless’, and you can scarcely read a phrase such as ‘crabs infinite’, or a flinty archaism such as