“Fascination” implies enchantment, an irrational obsession that dissipates after a spell has been lifted. It’s an appropriate title for writing that immediately captivates but somehow disappoints in the aftermath. Perhaps I’m just confusing cause and effect. These short stories by William Boyd are, after all, about disappointment itself.
A Scottish expatriate born in Ghana and educated in France and Britain, Boyd often creates characters unhappy at home. In these stories, men (his protagonists are only occasionally women) typically face a love/lust conundrum; they become distraught when they can’t have the woman they only met five minutes ago, and are unappreciative of a steady wifey. One such character is Alexander Rief of “A Haunting,” who, it’s suggested, actually becomes possessed by the spirit of a frustrated 19th-century scientist with a taste for blue-collar wenches. Rief’s career and marriage dissolve when he begins uncontrollably chasing after barmaids. Despite Rief’s historical research exposing his poltergeist, he’s merely a jerk going through a midlife crisis.
Academic or professional slackers searching for greener grass and never finding it, Boyd’s men are relentlessly hopeful and frequently left in the lurch by their own immature desires. While it’s hard to identify with what drives them (seemingly nothing more than a pair of nice legs), the details of their dissipation are done well. In “Adult Video,” after a one-night stand there is a “pongy, spermy, sweaty, tangled-sheets sort of exudation filling the hallway like tear gas,” and, despite your disgust in the hero who immediately proposes to the girlfriend he has cheated on and doesn’t seem to like, you have to pause to admire the description. One caveat: The word “refulgent” makes too many appearances; moments of radiance are necessary to illustrate disenchantment, but the pattern can become pat.
Character-wise, things become more interesting when the author departs from his standard persona. In “Beulah Berlin, an A-Z,” a foot photographer reminisces about her life, each section flowing so seamlessly into the next that you barely notice their alphabetic order. In “Varengeville,” we see an adulterous affair from the viewpoint of the young but knowing son sent on a bicycle to occupy himself in town while the lovers play. In “The Mind/Body Problem,” an asthmatic 19-year-old runs his steroid-pumping parents’ gym while they are away, striking back at mindless body worship by selling fake illegal performance-enhancing drugs at extravagant prices. Boyd shows he can play more than just the self-involved cad, and that’s when he is at his most charming.