Book Review : William Boyle - Death Don't Have No Mercy (2015)
"We're all sinners."
The great majority of men I know are terrified of failure, yet cannot live with success to save their lives. It's understandable when you think about it: dealing with the expectations of an audience alters your relationship to what you do. That's why I get nervous reading the second book of every new writer I love and why I hesitated so long before picking up William Boyle's short story collection Death Don't Have No Mercy. Plus, it's a fucking short story collection. How could it possibly live up to the melancholic majesty of Boyle's debut novel Gravesend? Turned out Death Don't Have No Mercy stands its ground and doesn't let its older brother cast any shadow on its beauty.
Boyle's first short story collection features eight tales of people coping with broken dreams. The title story starred Calhoun, a drifter finding the meaning of life in a stolen walkman. Calhoun rejected everything life offered him without reason other than profound dissatisfaction until it gives him an intangible gift: connection. I thought the ending felt a little contrived, but overall it's a beautiful piece that sets the mood of quiet heartbreak that characterizes Death Don't Have No Mercy. It just doesn't feel very much like a crime story. Not that it mattered, the story has legs of its own, but was the crime angle necessary?
My favorite story in Death Don't Have No Mercy was the last and longest in the collection: Here Come the Bell. Those of you who read the collection already will say I loved it only because it featured smoker boxing matches. Know that it couldn't be any more false. It's stunningly well-portrayed (which leads me to think Boyle has watched smokers before), but it's not that. I thought Here Come the Bell was the most unique story of the collection because of its romanticism. It doesn't deal in bleak heartbreak like the others, but rather in principles in a world governed by money and power. Fifty years earlier, it would've been adapted to cinema with Marlon Brando for lead.
I would like to point out which other William Boyle stories that stood out in Death Don't Have No Mercy, but they all ranged from very good to excellent. Perhaps Far from God and Poughkeepsie resonated a little less with me, but I'm sure they would've stood out in different contexts, maybe in short story collections with different themes. Boyle is definitely a detailed-oriented stylist, so the form suits him perhaps even better than novels. Death Don't Have No Mercy was fulfilling in itself. I did not surprise myself wishing some of these stories were novel length. They were perfect the way they were and I believe William Boyle's keen eye is responsible for that.
The question I kept asking myself while reading Death Don't Have No Mercy is the following: is William Boyle REALLY a crime writer? The guy is good. Sometimes CRUSHINGLY good even. His style is simple, easy to understand and yet loaded with complex and unspoken emotions common to adulthood that not that many authors are gifted as expressing. In fact, the crime angle was often the worst part of every story in Death Don't Have No Mercy. I'm finding a lot of the same pleasure in reading William Boyle than I had reading Raymond Carver. I don't expect you to believe this statement, but remember it when Boyle is going to break out. Because material like Death Don't Have No Mercy leads me to believe he's now contending for major recognition.
Not everybody can write short stories the right way and definitely not everybody writes like William Boyle. The New York native has mastered economy of language like few others before him and has a special talent at portraying the sneaky heartbreaks of adulthood. Boyle is the real deal. I mean, the work speaks for itself. But does he believe himself to be? He has a commercially viable writing style and a poetic vision of America that challenge Haruki Murakami's love for his native Japan. His work definitely fills a void that the new Lee Child or the latest Longmire novel will never even come close to fill.
Death Don't Have No Mercy definitely raises more questions than it answers for William Boyle, but it raises interesting ones. It's clear that he's a major talent in the publishing business, but where does he actually belong? Is he a crime writer or is he a literary author? The world belongs to him at this point really and wherever he decides to go, I just wish he chooses the road of less compromises and let his immense talent attract the crowds. Mark my words, beautiful people: William Boyle is a budding literary rock star and he's a couple sparks away from having his face on Rolling Stone.