West Coast Delusions

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Stephen Francis
T.C. Boyle on Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the Channel Islands off the coast of southern California, November 2010

No doubt we haven’t seen the last of the novel or memoir of personal angst, for a long time now the preferred mode of writing; but as the troubles of the world worsen, these can come to seem self-indulgent. Is it a moment for the didactic side of novel-writing—its old roots, suppressed or concealed in happier times—to return with a tub-thumping, Victorian roar? Such a renaissance of purpose seems a positive development, an endorsement of the slyly pedagogic nature of the novel form, bringing with it readability, solidity, suspense, and relevance—novels that make you think, as people used to say when thinking was presumed to be an honorific, against the domination of “feeling” novels that make you weep.

T. Coraghessan Boyle’s new When the Killing’s Done falls in nicely with the mood of Margaret Atwood’s vatic sci-fi tales or Jonathan Franzen’s recent, naturalistic Freedom with its impassioned defense of birds. Though he’s been writing for a long time about America’s problems, Boyle usually does so more covertly, in a comic voice with comedy’s concealed agenda. Here, though, there’s the note of the preacher in despair that has surfaced sometimes in past novels, notably The Tortilla Curtain (1995), his admired book about illegal Hispanic immigrants in L.A.’s Topanga Canyon.

Boyle, who lives near Santa Barbara and teaches at the University of Southern California, has kept a careful eye on local and national quirks since the Seventies, with particular attention to California. This beleaguered state on the West Coast, thinking of itself as removed from the rest of the country and in certain ways ahead of it, often foreshadows trends that will soon be widespread. At the moment, the state is notable for its disastrous finances and its defiance of federal laws that would compel it to relax gun regulations and the state’s more exigent rules on air quality. Boyle’s new novel highlights still another issue: endangered species.

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When the Killing’s Done is based on actual events in the Channel Islands, a chain of eight islands off the California coast from below Los Angeles north to Santa Barbara, with a total area of about 350 square miles. One, Santa Catalina, is a well-known resort colony; the largest (61,000 acres, three times the size of Manhattan) is Santa Cruz Island, which with four others is now a National Park. These islands are to modern science what the Galapagos were to Darwin, a sort of ecology laboratory, and have long been a scene of environmental depredations, some of which are described in the novel’s catalog of natural disasters and man-made mistakes, especially the introduction of animal species that don’t belong there, that is, weren’t originally there, including rats, mice, wild pigs, foxes, cats, cattle, sheep, and avian predators like…



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