When the Killing's Done

If the bizarrely complicated mess that is our country today required a single label, one might safely nominate "The Age of T. Coraghessan Boyle." The author of twelve previous novels, Boyle knows just what to do with the stupefying ironies 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. Over the whole show a neon sign blinks on and off: Message! Message!  


In 1995's The Tortilla Curtain, Boyle took on the subject of immigration; five years 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 a battlefield on which those who would restore the fauna of California's Channel Islands war with those who would preserve the lives of the fauna currently there. The short answer to When the Killing's Done, in Boyle's cynical realist view, is never. Not when people who assume they have the right to play god, and who have contrived self-serving ethics to support their actions, are a book's main actors.


Engaging the subject of animal rights in novel form—or pretty much any form that involves words—is such a 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 Lives of Animals, but the problem with installing a pulpit in the middle of one's book is that it tends to obscure the reader's view. Boyle renders the details of modern meat production with straightforward horror:

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

But he does a disservice to a message with which one suspects he sympathizes by putting it in the mouth of one of the most reprehensible characters in recent fiction. That would be Dave LaJoy, a (don't miss the irony) joyless monster who is both a barely contained tower of rage as well as a hypocrite of the first water (we watch him berating the waitress who delivers his incorrectly prepared eggs—it goes without saying that they are factory-farmed.) Nevertheless, Dave appoints himself savior of Anacapa Island's rats, a late introduction to the ecosystem that has decimated the native ground-nesting birds. His opposite number is Alma Boyd Takesue, a National Park Service biologist who takes scarcely veiled pleasure in dealing death, whether by poison or bullet, to the interloping species that interfere with what she imagines to be an Edenic perfection she alone can restore.  


To give 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 Alma and to LaJoy's co-conspirator, his girlfriend, a luscious folksinger named Anise Reed. The former's grandmother, Beverly, survived a boat wreck in the channel in 1946, and she gives voice to the animating faith of much of T. C. Boyle's work by recalling The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and its awe-inspiring theme, "nature, the power of it, the hugeness." Well, yes and no: her granddaughter clearly lives in the California of today, a paradise that was all too easily denatured and rearranged to suit the animals who have finally and utterly claimed it for themselves—"If there's a bird or lizard or a living creature other than Homo sapiens out there, she can't see it." On the other hand, Anise Reed's mother became a proto-animal rightist by working a sheep ranch on Santa Cruz, where the depradations of ravens and unthinking profiteers on too many innocent lambs impressed her daughter with the importance of opposing cruelty whenever and most immediately it occurs.


Boyle writes his large scenes 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, the backbreak, the stock and the improvements, the gas-fired water pump and the saddle horses and all the rest, the taste of the dirt between your teeth when the sundowners are clipping over the hills and the deepest requited love of a place that was like the love of of the soul of God, let it go.

It makes him angry, all of it, all of them. You can hardly argue with that, although you might with the mode of delivery: this is not an op-ed but fiction, and the characters are thus forced 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 an ecosystem is never easy—maybe it's not even possible," muses Alma in summary. In the author's set-up, there is no hope, really. There's only our enormous self-regard, and not one character here is immune to its disease. But Boyle is writer enough to know that he cannot let his heavy boat go down in a concocted squall of irony. To be sure, Dave LaJoy gets his comeuppance on a covert mission to Santa Cruz, wire cutters in hand: it seems the island doesn't want his saving, and it is the island itself—nature serving as a sardonically fitting deus ex machina—that punishes him. In the end, Alma comes to her senses, or at least reveals that she has some: "She is a killer, of pigs, of rats, of fennel and star thistle and of the introduced turkeys that will have 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 a final 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.

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