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.


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 golden eagles, gulls, and burrowing owls that prey on the other species.

Man, of course, is responsible; mice and rats swam from shipwrecks to colonize the rocks and feast on the native nestlings. Sheep and goats were brought in to graze on the island grasses. Sheep ranchers were displaced by hunters; cats and pigs were introduced and had to be “removed.” The Atomic Energy Commission and private contractors used the waters off both the Channel Islands and Farallon Islands to the north as a nuclear waste dump from 1946 to 1970, and there are still at least 45,000 barrels of radioactive waste at the bottom of the sea. No one is quite sure where or to what effect.

The history of the Channel Islands, like that of the Farallons, more or less recapitulates the history of human exploitation of the entire planet’s natural resources—careless exploitation by early explorers and greedy commercial interests, a growing awareness of impending scarcity, haphazard measures to protect what’s left, with, usually, unforeseen consequences, and finally, sometimes, drastic action. In California, sea otters and fur seals, for example, were killed in the tens of thousands by Russian and American hunters in the early nineteenth century, and were thought almost gone until the nearly miraculous revival of the otter colony in recent years. The wholesale gathering of birds’ eggs, and later the effect of DDT, nearly exterminated many seabirds, including some rare species with lovely names like Xantus’s murrelet or Cassin’s auklet. There have been many attempts to rectify the numerous errors, sometimes making things worse.

The “killing” of the book’s title refers to strategies employed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Nature Conservancy to return the ecosystems of the islands to their original state, a process that involves the extermination of all the newcomers that endanger rare birds like the rhinoceros auklet and the ashy storm-petrel, the island fox, and some native island plants. All such targeted killing efforts have met with controversy and opposition, not only in California but in places like Yellowstone, where the management of wolves is always an issue. Sometimes animal rights activists succeed in stopping or slowing an extermination effort. In the case of the fallow deer in Marin County, for example, they were aided by letters to the National Park authorities at Point Reyes—an effective one was signed by California senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein and three local representatives: Anna Eshoo, George Miller, and Nancy Pelosi.


Boyle’s dramatization of events on the Channel Islands begins with an actual effort by animal rights activists on Anacapa in 2002 to stop the eradication of the black rats that had colonized it. The title quotes one of the novel’s characters, the boorish animal rights activist Dave LaJoy: “I’ll be civil when the killing’s done.” Dave is an absolutist and a romantic who represents the view that killing any creature is wrong. Somewhere along the line, he had read a pamphlet, and all too vividly was able to imagine a slaughterhouse, half-stunned animals, and the suffering that went into making his hamburger. From a thoughtless meat-eater, he turned into a fanatic harrowed by a stricture of Schopenhauer’s:

The assumption that animals are without rights and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity. Universal compassion is the only guarantee to morality.

Dave’s folksinger girlfriend Anise was raised on Santa Cruz Island, the daughter of sheep ranchers who had been making a living out of wool and meat until they were displaced by sport hunters who bought the failing sheep enterprise. One of her childhood traumas involved lambs in her charge being attacked by ravens, leaving her with a horror of killing things to eat them.

Dave and Anise are PETA types, willing to go to extremes to protect life. Their attempts to introduce an antidote for the rat poison brings them and their faction into conflict with an initially sympathetic couple, Tim Sickafoose and Alma Takasue, scientists working for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, who are charged with protecting endangered sea birds on Anacapa by eliminating the rats and other nonnative species that have disturbed the ecosystem. When a young woman who’s working with Alma questions their efforts—“I don’t know why we have to kill everything”—Alma despairs that they haven’t explained their point of view well enough:

But that’s exactly wrong, don’t you see? Because we’re the ones who put the animals there, the sheep and cattle and pigs on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa, the rats on Anacapa and cats and rabbits on Santa Barbara, and it’s our obligation, our duty [to return these places to their original state by killing off the interlopers].

Tim and Alma are environmental fundamentalists who want to eradicate anything that wasn’t originally native to the land they want to protect. These two, with their Ph.D.s in biological or ecological subjects, represent science, law, order, scholarship, perhaps common sense, and a long view of the harm the rats are causing to other forms of wildlife. Thus are the forces of the moral dilemma ranged in opposition: where Dave and Anise pity individual animals, Tim and Alma must advocate killing them.

Who has the moral high ground? The question is rehearsed in various ways. To complicate the apportionment of sympathies in a typically Boylesque fashion, Alma and Tim are members of virtuous minorities, Native American and Asian, while Dave is a white yuppie jerk, a rich bully, overbearing, belligerent to waiters, grudging to the poor, scornful of Mexicans—he’s a type that turns up in other Boyle novels, the relative of Delaney, the suburbanite in The Tortilla Curtain, a man full of politically correct ideas and personal self-indulgences who is dismayed to find Mexicans living in his canyon backyard.

Finally, in this novel, everybody is disappointing and there’s no one to love. Tim deserts Alma when she becomes pregnant with his child: “I’m just not ready for this” and “Seven billion people, he kept droning.” Alma is a nag who reproaches Tim for things like forgetting an umbrella: “Didn’t you think?” The two opposing parties, embodied by Dave and Anise against Tim and Alma, continue to enact their fated roles, next on Santa Cruz Island, where feral pigs are the issue.

The prim, intellectual Alma delivers interesting disquisitions on Rattus rattus (the black rat), on DDT and its effects on bald eagles, and on the complicated ecology of Santa Cruz Island. When it was used to raise sheep, they overgrazed the native fennel; removing the sheep permitted new growth of fennel, but this in turn provided cover for wild pigs, which then flourished, in turn attracting golden eagles, which formerly were not native to the island.


Once the eagles had eaten the piglets, they turned to prey on the small island foxes, a species unique to Santa Cruz Island; then the golden eagles had to be trapped to protect the foxes, and the more aggressive bald eagles, themselves nearly extinct from DDT, were brought back to control the goldens…. Alma acknowledges that “you can never foresee how a closed ecosystem is going to react not only to introduced elements but to their elimination as well,” but she doesn’t act on that principle; she analyzes its implications differently than Dave in order to defend the idea that individuals must be killed to preserve the balance. Once she is pregnant, she has a few compunctions, but these are only momentary and she overcomes them. And she never examines the premise that the original state of things must be better.


People in the business of animal control use several methods for exterminating unwanted species: introduced predators (“apex predators” or “mesopredators”), contraceptives, trapping, viruses, hunting, and rodenticide bait. In the case of the rats of Anacapa, the Wildlife Service chose an anticoagulant poison, brodifacoum. In the novel, Dave tries illegally to introduce an antidote, vitamin K, though his effort fails. The story then moves on to elimination of wild pigs on Santa Cruz Island—animals that had been artificially introduced by humans a century and a half before, and were finally finished off in 2007. Unlike a population of sheep that had been returned to the mainland, hunted, or adopted, the pigs couldn’t be used for food or returned: they “could carry leptospirosis, foot and mouth disease, mutations of common bacteria and viruses that could burn through the American hog industry,” leaving “no choice but to euthanize them.”


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.


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.

This Issue

February 24, 2011