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West Coast Delusions

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Above: Ian Shive/Aurora; below: Jim Wilson/The New York Times/Redux
An endangered small island fox, above, and feral pigs on Santa Cruz Island

In the novel, as in reality, the Nature Conservancy and National Parks people divided Santa Cruz Island into fenced zones for shooting the pigs more easily, and the shooting was contracted to an outfit from New Zealand, called Prohunt, which has been associated with animal extermination programs there, in Hawaii, and elsewhere in the US (generating objections that make Dave’s efforts in the novel seem mild).

The hunters Boyle depicts are unpleasantly hearty, outdoor types—for one thing, they’re smokers, a habit that seems to replace wife-beating and dog-kicking as a means of directing the reader’s sympathies or antipathies. They leer at Alma, swig whiskey, and gloat over the carcasses of a fine specimen they’ve bagged. In reality, most of the Prohunt killing was done from helicopters, using electronic collars, Judas animals artificially treated with hormones and thus more able to lead other animals into traps, as well as a number of other techniques Boyle touches on. Alma becomes friendly with the head shooter, Frazier.

It’s an exciting narrative, incorporating tragedy, anger, and a satisfying amount of natural history, with the entangled moral complexities so difficult to unravel that the reader may find himself saying, “just tell me what to think.” Boyle doesn’t, but one can feel his pleasure in dramatizing the inherent paradoxes of issues that do finally seem insoluble. If along the way he sometimes renders Dave LaJoy’s indignant moral reflections more convincingly, at least to this reader, than Alma’s descriptions of succulent lamb stews or reasoned defense of birds’ eggs, perhaps this is a misreading. Boyle is adroit at avoiding black and white; but the emotional impact seems weighted against the killing by the fact that he’s writing about it. As in others of his works, absolute notions of right and wrong demand sacrifice and exact a heavy price, as poor Dave LaJoy discovers.

3.

Reading a number of Boyle’s books together gives a strong impression of his real concerns, which can be dissembled by his protean cleverness. With his sharp eye for, and little tolerance of, human frailty, he began writing his increasingly impatient screeds detailing various outrages in the 1970s, and quickly gained a following, at first mostly among those drawn to his iconoclasm and smart counterculture élan—students of Mark Twain, or John Barth, say. Since then he has gotten four PEN and numerous other comfortably Establishment awards. This is his thirteenth novel, and there are nine collections of short stories.

Many are associated with California, and many things come in for mockery: supporters of animal rights and those who cause animal suffering, the environment, environmentalists, yuppie affectations, foodiness, consumerism. He has a love of paradox, and delights in situations where, often, the nominally wicked, even criminal, characters have the most virtuous stands and the right-thinking characters in his books, people who don’t pollute, aren’t cruel to animals, and watch their consumer behavior, are apt to be as unpleasant as the downright villains. Boyle is strong on the subject of human delusion, and though there’s an underlying tone of disappointment with the human race in his work, it’s not as savage as Swift’s or Voltaire’s, as if time and developments in psychology, or perhaps just a mellowing temperament, have brought understanding, though not forgiveness, for our present society.

He’s drawn to portraying cranks, fanatics, and crazies—the mad scion of the McCormick family in Riven Rock (1998); John Harvey Kellogg, founder of the cereal empire in The Road to Wellville (1993); the egomaniac Frank Lloyd Wright in The Women (2009), a novel about Wright’s eccentric wives at the cultish Taliesen. There’s Tyrone Tierwater in A Friend of the Earth (2000), a retired environmental activist in charge of a menagerie for a rock star, a situation that will call to mind Michael Jackson; the prescient Boyle imagines a fate for the fictional character only a little more grotesque than what really awaited Jackson a few years after the novel was published. His people are often bound together by some shared belief or, usually, delusion. He seems especially drawn to the subject of collective manias—groups of people at a spa (The Road to Wellville), the ultimate hippie commune novel (Drop City, 2003).

Because his sense of the ridiculous usually overcomes his moments of gravity, he rarely departs from a comic mode that precludes tears even in the most tragic circumstances, as people are swept to their deaths in the sea or butchered by the cook (as was one of Wright’s wives). His women characters are sometimes slightly grotesque exaggerations, all breast and buttock, as in old Esquire cartoons, sometimes imposing Helen Hokinson types, with exceptions, certainly, for the naturalistically presented Alma, or the deaf woman Dana, the completely convincing heroine of Talk Talk (2006), in which she and her lover pursue a young man who has stolen her identity and is running up stupefying debts in pursuit of his yuppie aspirations.

In writing about environmental matters, Boyle takes on some special artistic problems beside the double disadvantages of living in California and being an essentially comic writer—two qualities that seem to impede the reception of messages. It’s hard to write a good novel about any issue per se, though there are lots of examples, from Zola to Norris, that do transcend the polemic force of their subject. And of course Boyle isn’t the only writer of fiction to write about the environment—one thinks immediately of Peter Matthiessen’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord or Brenda Peterson’s Animal Heart, or certain aspects of Cooper, Conrad, and Melville—or, for that matter, Carl Hiaasen or Cormac McCarthy. But in general, the natural world is not a common subject of fiction, nor are the lives of animals, except in the books we all read as children, like Black Beauty and Beautiful Joe. For most readers, the emotions of empathy aroused by these harrowing tales are eventually supressed in the name of grown-up pragmatism or because only children are tough enough to bear them. That may not be true for Boyle, whose animals are often presented more sympathetically than his people.

But because it is so vast, amorphous, controversial, and abstract, the environment defies personification, that essential strategy of fiction, and few have found ways to dramatize environmental issues. If he were writing about a general evil like child slavery, he could choose a child and tell its story, or, because of his particular command of voices, have the child tell his or her own story. The child could have a name, gender, history; but an ecosystem is harder. Mythology itself arose around attempts in the beginning to talk about crops or rainfall by personifying them. But we no longer believe in the rain god.

There’s also the problem for writers of depicting virtue, which is never as attractive as vice and far less believable, as we all may remember from our childhood reading of Elsie Dinsmore, or as adults about poor Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove. The ludicrous zeal and hypocrisy of do-gooders and tree-huggers are established literary tropes; in books, at least, such characters never fail to make things worse and end disappointed. This is a tradition that goes back to Dickens, Hawthorne, Eliot, and earlier, and is so firmly a part of fiction that to flout it in one case requires defying the whole history of the novel.

In Boyle’s hands, however, his range of topical subjects and his wittiness turn polemics into his particular domain, with a body of entertaining and absorbing novels that seem, over a period of thirty years, to document and mirror the slow morph of the counterculture into the mainstream almost better than anybody’s. He began in the vein of Vonnegut or Swift, wryly determined to épater le bourgeois. By now, it’s much harder to distinguish who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s cool, and he’s no longer so sure either. Who is the villain of When the Killing’s Done? In the end, Boyle’s scorn is for the irredeemable, and for him that includes a lot of mankind.

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