“All he could think about was bailing, one bucket after the other, as if the house he’d lived in all his life was a boat out on the open sea.” This is the opening line of “Surtsey,” a new short story by T.C. Boyle that takes place at the end of the world—more specifically, on a remote island off the coast of Alaska, one of those places where the concrete effects of rising sea levels and melting ice caps are felt first. The narrator, A.J., is a teenage boy who struggles to hold on to teenage things. He keeps his basketball trophy and his videogames in the go-bag, knowing he’ll soon have to evacuate, but never knowing for sure if he’ll have the opportunity to return. He and all the rest of the people on the island are prepared: The house is on four-foot stilts; his father has rigged an elaborate system of pulleys to keep everyone’s beds floating a couple of feet off the floor. But the storm is larger, unholier, than they anticipated. It rages relentlessly, surging past the depleted ring of ice that used to protect the island—and surging into the house until, as A.J. realizes, it’s hardly a house anymore.
Like a large and increasing percentage of Boyle’s recent fiction, “Surtsey” is a story about climate change, showing people struggling to keep their lives afloat (literally and figuratively) as the inhuman force of a human-caused phenomenon takes its toll. But the weird and interesting thing about the story—which appears in an acerbic new collection of Boyle’s called The Relive Box and Other Stories—is that it never expands to meet the size of its subject; it remains isolated, in terms of both geography and perspective. It stays locked inside the limited point of view of a teenager who knows little beyond what his science teacher taught him at school. It never depicts the sea except as water to bail from an imperiled domestic interior; it never depicts the wind except as a screeching presence outside the walls. A.J. thinks a little bit about the world outside, but he stays mostly fixated on hooking up with his crush in the bathroom of an overcrowded public shelter. Crammed together like animals on Noah’s ark, the people dream and bicker listlessly while the waters rise and rise.