Red in Tooth and Claw
T.C. Boyle pits animal rightists against environmentalists.
When T.C. Boyle swaggered onto the literary scene in the 1980s, brandishing flamboyantly bizarre short stories in one hand and wildly satirical novels like Water Music and Budding Prospects in the other, the exuberance of his sentences was often more impressive than the depth of his characterizations. He took a moralist's aim at big targets—imperialism, class oppression, racial prejudice—but his stingingly funny dissections of human selfishness, self-delusion, greed, and misdirected ambition were rarely complicated by such awkward sentiments as compassion or complicity. Unlike plenty of his characters, however, Boyle has grown up a lot. Watching empathy infiltrate his pages has been one of the pleasures of following his prodigious career, which includes nine story collections and now a 13th novel.
Beginning with The Tortilla Curtain, a novel about illegal immigration published in 1995, Boyle has made a sustained effort to move beyond flat-out satire, disciplining his excesses, enlarging his sympathies, and honing his central preoccupation: the gap between our utopian dreams and the world's messy reality. The dreams can be social—Alfred Kinsey's mission to report honestly on human sexuality in The Inner Circle, Frank Lloyd Wright's desire to create new spaces for living and working in The Women—or they can be radically antisocial: the ecoterrorists in A Friend of the Earth proudly declaring themselves enemies of the people. Always they fall short, as when members of a 1970s California hippie commune in Drop City confront their own materialism and nature's brute force in the Alaskan wilderness.
When the Killing's Done is Boyle's finest novel yet. Depicting a fierce conflict over the best way to protect the natural environment of two islands off the California coast, he takes the long and tragic view. Of course our efforts to clean up the messes we've made are flawed, he suggests as he surveys more than a century's worth of attempts to make those wild islands serve people's economic demands. We are flinging ourselves at a natural order perennially evolving to take advantage of our missteps. If that makes it sound as though humor has been eclipsed by homiletics—well, in a way it has. There are some funny moments: Boyle is still Boyle, and he was never one for preaching, but the overall mood is rueful and somber.
Alma Boyd Takesue is in charge of National Park Service programs to eradicate rats that threaten Anacapa Island's native bird population and to eliminate feral pigs that are wiping out the unique dwarf foxes on nearby Santa Cruz Island. (Both rats and pigs are non-natives introduced by human agency; Boyle's description of their history and of the programs to exterminate them is factual.) Her nemesis is Dave LaJoy, founder of the group For the Protection of Animals. "Nazis, that's what you are," he proclaims. "Kill everything, that's your solution." Urged to be civil, he retorts, "I'll be civil when the killing's done."
The killing, needless to say, is never done. Nature is as murderous as human beings, and neither is likely to change. Boyle makes this grim argument as he interweaves Alma and Dave's running battles from 2001 to 2007 with the stories of two previous generations. With a majestic opening epigraph from Genesis, God bidding Adam and Eve to "replenish the earth and subdue it: and have dominion over … every living thing," Boyle aims high with his drama of human hubris matched by nature's indifferent savagery, and it works.
Dominion, we come to realize, is what both Alma and Dave want, though neither acknowledges it. Before their struggle begins, however, the novel's first chapter plunges us into the ordeal of Alma's grandmother aboard a small craft beset by a violent storm in the Santa Barbara Channel in 1946. Washed ashore on Anacapa, Beverly finds food and water in an empty cabin, and fights off hordes of the rats her granddaughter will later eliminate. By the time a Coast Guard cutter rescues her two weeks later, Beverly has come to hate the island for "its changeless, ceaseless, ongoing and never-ending placidity and indifference and sheer brainless endurance."
Against this backdrop of implacable nature, Alma's faith in benevolent stewardship of the land and Dave's aggressive insistence on the sanctity of all animal life are equally suspect. Boyle would once have been content to expose their delusions with exaggerated strokes. Now he makes sure we see that each has a point and each has in some fundamental way missed the point.
Wendy Smith is a contributing editor at the American Scholar and writes regularly for the book review sections of the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune.