October 9: “Sin Dolor” by T.C. Boyle

Happy Sunday, Story366! I hope you’re having a swell day. Today was a travel day for me, as I left Chicago around 9 to head back to Springfield, which is about an eight-and-a-half-hour drive, or 513 miles, door to door. Those are comtemplative days for me, usually, but I’m a bit giddy after last night’s Cub victory, putting them up 2-0 in the NLDS. I spent the first leg of the trip listening to sports radio hosts rehashing the game, then listened to a couple of stories on The Moth Radio Hour (one by a woman on her post-double mastectomy reconstruction and another by a guy obsessed by funerals). I spent some time in silence, then, which is good, but was lured into listening to the Bears game at noon. I knew I was going to lose that signal, and did near St. Louis, but then as I randomly scanned through the dial and found a brand-new St. Louis-based Bears affiliate—they’re gunning for the Rams’ old fans—and listened to the rest of the game. I also talked to Karen for a while on the phone, as well as my brother, and before I knew it, I was pulling into my driveway and hugging my kids. That was at 6.

From there, I handled the crisis of our cat getting outside—he got stuck on the garage roof—and then watched the presidential debates. I really don’t have the energy, nor the time, to go into those right now, but all I can is this: It sure was a debate.

In between all that, I also got the chance to read a couple of stories from T.C. Boyle’s collection Wild Child, out from Viking Penguin, which is the seventh book of Boyle’s stories I’ve read now, after Descent of Man, Greasy Lake, If the River Was Whiskey, Without a Hero, After the Plague, and The Human Fly. As you can tell, I like Boyle a lot, having been introduced to him as an undergrad when I read “Carnal Knowledge” from an anthology. I’ve had this book for a while, too, having read the title story in a different anthology just a year or so ago, a chilling tale about a doctor who tries to civilize a young boy who had lived the first several years of his life in the wild, by himself. Today, I saw Wild Child on my to-read stack and really was drawn to it, as it had been a while since I’d read a Boyle story, which is never a good thing. Of the stories I read today, I’m going to write about “Sin Dolor.”

“Sin Dolor” could be described similarly to “Wild Child,” as it’s about a doctor who attempts to help a young boy with a very particular problem. In “Wild Child,” it was a feral kid, a Tarzan-like boy without a hint of Greystoke, and in “Sin Dolor,” it’s this kid down in Mexico who apparently can’t feel any pain (the title translates to “painless”). The doctor had delivered the kid, Dámaso Funes, years before the story starts, but years later, he runs into him again when his mother brings him in with some burns on his hands. She tries to to explain to the doctor that Dámaso has experienced a great many accidents, but has never shown any sign that they hurt him, no yelling, so sobbing, and worst of all, no alteration of behavior; remember, we can feel pain, we have nerves, because that’s how we know our body is being destroyed. Since Dámaso can’t feel pain, he doesn’t know when he’s biting through his own lip or burning himself or even if he’s bleeding. As a result, Dámaso is covered in scars and the doctor simply thinks his parents abuse him.

It’s a few more years before the doctor sees the Funes family again, but this time, the doctor is convinced Dámaso’s parents are right. They bring their son in with a broken leg and the doctor notes that they must have been telling the truth, as Dámaso walked into his examination room on a severely broken leg, no flinching, no calling out in pain, not even a limp. Now that he finally believes the Funes family—Dámaso is nine by this point—he couldn’t be more fascinated. Immediately, the doctor starts a relationship with the boy, running tests, trying to figure out how it’s possible for young Dámaso to feel no pain.

“Sin Dolor” is so interesting because Boyle is good at depicting the doctor’s frustrations. He’s a guy who wants to help this kid, but he also wants to figure things out, enlisting a college buddy up at Boise State to help him run tests. Working with Dámaso has helped him look at himself, of course, too, helped him become a better man, or at least question his own humanity. When I realized this, I realized that this doctor character is someone I’ve seen in fiction before, someone who might even be a trope. Aside from the similar character in the title story, there’s the Anthony Hopkins character in The Elephant Man and the Robin Williams character in Good Will Hunting, and those are just two off the top of my head. There’s others, right? I think it’s an interesting perspective, this person trying to figure out how a social oddity works, how they fit into society, in all cases fighting an impossible battle (okay, except Will Hunting). And that’s what I get out of the story—aside from his tremendous description of Dámaso’s physicality, the painful (to me, not Dámaso) details, and interesting setting—is this character, this lost soul who tries to save himself via an even more lost soul. I just might have to try it for myself, this character (and make my students do so as well).

So I’m a big T.C. Boyle fan, as I’d read six collections by him already, plus his novel The Road to Wellville. That makes Wild Child the eighth Boyle book I’ll put into the read column (note, Boyle has eighteen others [though two are collected stories]). I’ve read that many by Steven Milhauser, I guess, as I’ve read all his books, but aside from young adult stuff (e.g., the Encyclopedia Brown books), Milhauser’s the only author I’ve investigated as deeply as Boyle. And I’m not even halfway there. I’m glad, though, to have finally included him in this project. Wouldn’t have been complete without him.