When the Killing’s Done

If thebizarrely complicated mess that is our country today required a single label, onemight safely nominate “The Age of T. Coraghessan Boyle.” The authorof twelve previous novels, Boyle knows just what to do with the stupefyingironies of American factiousness, narcissism, and silly self-satisfactions:assemble some billboard-sized backdrops, oppose a variety of expository protagonists,and let them have at each other until they fall from exhaustion, or worse. Overthe whole show a neon sign blinks on and off: Message! Message!  

In 1995’s The Tortilla Curtain, Boyle took on the subject of immigration; fiveyears later, A Friend of the Earth gave plot to the theme of humans attempting to “save”the human-ravaged earth. His new novel returns to similar ground, now abattlefield on which those who would restore the fauna of California’s ChannelIslands war with those who would preserve the lives of the fauna currentlythere. The short answer to When the Killing’s Done, in Boyle’s cynical realist view, is never. Notwhen people who assume they have the right to play god, and who have contrived self-servingethics to support their actions, are a book’s main actors.

Engaging the subject ofanimal rights in novel form—or pretty much any form that involves words—is sucha gnarly endeavor that few fiction writers are up to managing the risk. J. M.Coetzee has made the attempt, in several works that include Disgrace and The Livesof Animals, but the problem with installing a pulpit in themiddle of one’s book is that it tends to obscure the reader’s view. Boyle rendersthe details of modern meat production with straightforward horror:

.. . eight billion chickens butchered in this country alone, a hundred millionhogs, forty million cows (twenty-five percent of which had been carelessly orinadequately stunned and thus effectively skinned alive, their writhings as theskin is torn from their faces a regular feature of the assembly line) . . .

But he does a disserviceto a message with which one suspects he sympathizes by putting it in the mouthof one of the most reprehensible characters in recent fiction. That would beDave LaJoy, a (don’t miss the irony) joyless monster who is both a barelycontained tower of rage as well as a hypocrite of the first water (we watch himberating the waitress who delivers his incorrectly prepared eggs—it goeswithout saying that they are factory-farmed.) Nevertheless, Dave appointshimself savior of Anacapa Island’s rats, a late introduction to the ecosystemthat has decimated the native ground-nesting birds. His opposite number is AlmaBoyd Takesue, a National Park Service biologist who takes scarcely veiledpleasure in dealing death, whether by poison or bullet, to the interlopingspecies that interfere with what she imagines to be an Edenic perfection shealone can restore.  

Togive depth to what would otherwise be a struggle between black and white—or rather,two sides that bleed into uniform gray—Boyle gives extended backstories to Almaand to LaJoy’s co-conspirator, his girlfriend, a luscious folksinger namedAnise Reed. The former’s grandmother, Beverly, survived a boat wreck in thechannel in 1946, and she gives voice to the animating faith of much of T. C.Boyle’s work by recalling The Rime of theAncient Mariner and its awe-inspiring theme, “nature, the power of it,the hugeness.” Well, yes and no: her granddaughter clearly lives in theCalifornia of today, a paradise that was all too easily denatured andrearranged to suit the animals who have finally and utterly claimed it forthemselves—”If there’s a bird or lizard or a living creature other than Homo sapiens out there, she can’t seeit.” On the other hand, Anise Reed’s mother became a proto-animal rightistby working a sheep ranch on Santa Cruz, where the depradations of ravens andunthinking profiteers on too many innocent lambs impressed her daughter withthe importance of opposing cruelty whenever and most immediately it occurs.

Boyle writes his largescenes in large prose, a rush of spring meltwater spilling downhill:

Yes.That’s right. Pull the plug and let it wash down the drain, the blisters, thebackbreak, the stock and the improvements, the gas-fired water pump and thesaddle horses and all the rest, the taste of the dirt between your teeth whenthe sundowners are clipping over the hills and the deepest requited love of aplace that was like the love of of the soul of God, let it go.

It makes him angry, all ofit, all of them. You can hardly argue with that, although you might with themode of delivery: this is not an op-ed but fiction, and the characters are thusforced to sit on a fence between moral fable and political cartoon, satire and story.And some of them fall off to one side or another.

“Restoring anecosystem is never easy—maybe it’s not even possible,” muses Alma insummary. In the author’s set-up, there is no hope, really. There’s only ourenormous self-regard, and not one character here is immune to its disease. But Boyleis writer enough to know that he cannot let his heavy boat go down in aconcocted squall of irony. To be sure, Dave LaJoy gets his comeuppance on acovert mission to Santa Cruz, wire cutters in hand: it seems the island doesn’twant his saving, and it is the island itself—nature serving as a sardonicallyfitting deus ex machina—that punisheshim. In the end, Alma comes to her senses, or at least reveals that she hassome: “She is a killer, of pigs,of rats, of fennel and star thistle and of the introduced turkeys that willhave to be removed in good time, a killer in the service of something higher,of redemption, salvation, but a killer all the same.” She is also, in afinal gift of authorial grace, a bringer of life. And so she remains a killer,but a merciful one at last. What she kills is all that irony.