Tuesday, July 14, 2015

T. C. Boyle’s ‘The Harder They Come’ is a
yes-you-oughta’-read-it-now novel

Almost every time I pick up a T.C. Boyle book, I begin to wonder what kind of Faustian deal I could make that would allow me to write half as well as he does. OK, a tenth as well. (Pssst! Call me, Mephistopheles.)

Boyle’s The Harder They Come (not to be confused with Perry Henzell’s 1972 Jamaican crime film of the same name) is his fifteenth novel and twenty-fifth book. Set mostly in Northern California, it “explores the roots of violence and anti-authoritarianism inherent in the American character.”

The three main characters are Sten Stenson, a Vietnam vet and retired school principal, now in his 70’s, his son, Adam, and Adam’s older girlfriend, Sara.

Sten has a trigger temper. In the opening scene of the book, he and his wife are on a cruise and have signed up for a nature walk in the Costa
Rican jungles. After a harrowing bus ride, they arrive at their destination whereupon three banditos, one waving a gun and two with knives, order the passengers – mostly elderly – to hand over their money and possessions. Sten’s military training kicks in: “What he’d learned as a nineteen-year-old himself, a recruit, green as an apple, wasn’t about self-defense, it was about killing, and does anybody ever forget that?” He gets the gunman in a choke hold – “…first thing they teach you. Choke off the air and don’t let up no matter what.” The gun falls away but Sten doesn’t reduce the pressure. “…He was immobilizing him because that was what he’d been trained to do and he had no choice in the matter. It was beyond reason now, autonomous, dial it up, semper fi.”

In a subsequent scene back in California, his wife is determined to go into a bar where their son and his girlfriend are. Sten doesn’t want her to: “What he did then was take hold of her arm – or no, he snatched it with a sudden jolt of violence that seemed to explode inside him. ‘You’re not going nowhere,’ he rasped, his voice tight in his throat. She tried to pull away but he held on to her, his hand clamped just above her elbow, feeling the bone there, the humerous, and how weightless and weak and fragile it was.”

That night, he sleeps in the guest room “because Carolee was in one of her moods.”

Sten is part of the organization “Take Back Our Forest,” whose members patrol heavily wooded areas, searching for hidden Mexican cartel marijuana plantations. They are convinced that the Mexicans are killing wildlife to keep it away from the plantations, even going so far as to poison water supplies from which the animals might drink. In one scene, Sten and a fellow member see a group of Mexicans buying supplies and loading them into a pickup truck. Since the truck is not a beaten up junker, they immediately conclude that the Mexicans are drug dealers and determine to follow them in Sten’s Prius to see where they turn off to get to their camp. As the novel progresses, this organization moves more and more toward vigilantism.

Sten and Carolee’s now-adult son, Adam, is seriously mentally ill, off his medications, and armed. He imagines himself to be the reincarnation of John Colter, Lewis and Clark’s scout, who became a mountain man survivalist. Adam sees “aliens” (which include police, intruders, anyone who interferes in any way with him) everywhere. He has built a camp high in the woods where he lives, raising marijuana plants and opium poppies. Each day, he pushes himself with physical routines to build his endurance, his ability to move soundlessly through the woods, and to perform military maneuvers in case “aliens” attack.

Sten reacts to his son’s behavior with anger insisting that Adam “turns it on and off” at will. “He could feel the anger coming up in him, anger at her…but most of all at Adam, Adam with his thrusts and parries and the way he hid behind his debility, pulled it down like a screen to excuse anything….”

Sara, who meets Adam by chance, is a “sovereign citizen” who refuses to recognize the authority of the “U.S. Illegitimate Government of America the Corporate.” She is stopped by police for not wearing a seatbelt (a thing she refuses to do on principle, it being an example of government overreach). She is arrested when she will not give her name or hand over her license: “I do not have a contract with you,” is all she will say. Her reading of the Uniform Commercial Code is that it guarantees “free and unencumbered access” to highways and byways – and, therefore, she cannot legally be stopped by the police whose authority she does not recognize. She becomes Adam’s lover and a kind of surrogate mother as well.

After Adam sinks deeper into madness and murders an “alien,” a massive manhunt ensues. Although he eludes his pursuers for weeks, the novel moves inexorably toward its violent conclusion.

Boyle presents his characters without condescension or polemics. His pacing is near-perfect and his descriptions of the settings in which the characters move are masterful.

Some critics have been dismissive. Claire Fallon, writing for The Huffington Post, called Boyle’s writing “stodgily assured” and declared The Harder They Fall “a powerful but stylistically flawed novel.” Jason Sheehan blew him off as “an old school novelist” in an NPR review. To which I say, in the most professional tone I can muster, “Oh, bull.”

Michiko Kakutani, writing in The New York Times, nailed it: “[S]tunning… It’s gripping, funny and melancholy…The Harder They Come is a masterly - and arresting - piece of storytelling, arguably Mr. Boyle’s most powerful, kinetic novel yet.”

And Jess Walter wrote in the Los Angeles Times:

How many times since T.C. Boyle began publishing in 1979 has traditional fiction been declared dead, moribund, irrelevant?

And yet here he comes again, riding up on “The Harder They Come,” a full-throated Harley Davidson of a novel, his 15th (in addition to 10 stellar books of stories). Here he’s using some of fiction’s least fashionable attributes, social realism, pointed action and thematic ambition, to brilliantly dissect America’s love affair with violence.

Fiction’s most recent deathwatch began with David Shields’ provocative 2010 book “Reality Hunger,” in which he diagnosed the traditional novel as ‘predictable, tired, contrived and essentially purposeless.’ Other autopsies followed.

…In this meek climate, it’s a treat to read an expansive novel in which big characters (none of whom is a writer!) act out a gripping, grounded drama meant to expose some key aspect of the American character, in this case, the myth of self-reliance and its connection to paranoid jingoism. It’s the sort of novel critics might once have called writ large – and, dude, if its large writing you want, you could do worse than T.C. Boyle.

If Boyle is “old school,” (Look, Ma, no vampires! No meta puns! No destruction of Planet Earth by rogue viruses! No navel gazing!), then I say, bring it on. Please.

T.C. Boyle won the PEN/Faulkner award in 1988 for World’s End, and the Prix Medicis etranger in 1995 for The Tortilla Curtain. In 2014, he won the Henry David Thoreau award for excellence in nature writing. He is a Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Southern California.

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