T. C. Boyle’s new novel offers all that his readers have come to expect: compelling narrative, exhilarating writing and vigorous engagement of issues that preoccupy the American imagination. The author of 13 novels and nine collections of short stories, Boyle is both prolific and accomplished, a recipient of the Pen/Faulkner Award and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His last novel, The Women, a fictional account of the real-life amours of Frank Lloyd Wright, was a New York Times bestseller, demonstrating once again that intelligent, historically based novels can prove popular with contemporary readers.
This latest offering takes on a more urgent subject: the disastrous effects of human encroachment upon the natural world and its fragile ecosystems and the things we can or cannot do to remedy the cataclysms we create. In the wake of global warming, nuclear meltdown and species endangerment, Boyle’s novel arrives in the nick of time. We are worried about the earth we seem to be systematically ruining, and the story identifies, dramatizes and perhaps even exploits our fears.
Yet Boyle’s book is no tale of Chicken Little. Instead, it is a knowing satire on the warring factions of environmental crusaders whose ostensible aim is to save the earth but whose hidden desire is to claim ownership of it and keep it to themselves, thank you. Readers learn much about the dire consequences of environmental meddling, both intentional and accidental, that has taken place on the California Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara. Bird species teeter on the brink of extinction because egg-eating rats have been shipwrecked on Ana Capa; domestic sheep introduced by ranchers devour the vegetation that keeps the island of Santa Cruz from disintegrating into the Pacific; and feral hogs drive off the dwarf foxes that have roamed the island hills from time immemorial.
Alma Boyd Takesue comes to the rescue of these threatened eco-outposts, motivated by scientific imperative but also by personal attachment. (We learn early on, in the tour-de-force opening chapter, that her shipwrecked grandmother was saved from death by coming aground on Ana Capa when pregnant with Alma’s mother. So in a very real sense, Alma owes her life to these islands.) Dr. Takesue’s methods, however, are harsh: outright extermination of the invasive species through a variety of less-than-humane means, ranging from poisoning-by-airdrop to the hiring of Outback bounty hunters.
Enter her nemesis, a PETA-obsessed brute with the unlikely name of Dave LaJoy, whose love of animals far outstrips any affection he might have harbored for members of the human species. LaJoy’s misanthropy is Swiftian in ferocity and breadth, his hatred toward people generalized and liberally dispensed. No one—with the exception of his girlfriend, Anise—escapes his disdain, including the blameless waitress who serves him breakfast every morning at the diner he ritually patronizes. In this locale, where we first meet him and encounter him repeatedly in the book, the reader cannot help but wonder why the man doesn’t find another restaurant to eat his morning eggs—until one realizes that he loves to hate people.
LaJoy’s conversion to animal-rights activism—and a conversion it is, since he is as faithful to the movement as any religious devotee—is treated with similar wry comedy, as the result of his randomly receiving a pamphlet one day featuring big-eyed animals caught in the maw of the meat industry rather than as the conclusion of his exercise of rational deliberation. LaJoy’s rage, previously diffuse and undirected, happily finds a target, and he aims it, as all bullies do, at a single person who represents what he thinks he hates most, the murderous (to his mind) Alma Takesue.
Just as the reader settles in for a Let-the-Games-Begin genre of plot and envisions the predictable A plague-on-both-your-houses conclusion, however, the novel (like all good art) defies expectations. Irritating as she may be, Alma gradually emerges as the heroine of the novel, despite her control-freakiness and her own bouts of anger and ritual obsessions—the latter focused primarily on food she places in her mouth and on the sound (and unseen emissions) of engines that slide along the freeway outside her apartment building. Alma may be as anxiety-ridden and zealous as LaJoy, but her zeal is grounded in real knowledge of what is happening to the planet and in genuine love of the islands she is trying to save. Her devotion to the cause is signaled by her willingness to engage the unpleasant but unchangeable paradox that governs the natural world: the death of one creature preserves and sustains the life of another. This is a reality LaJoy rejects (supposedly) on principle, even as he downs his runny eggs, much to the disgust of his vegan girlfriend, a concession to the necessity of maintaining his gym-toned muscle mass.
It is telling that amid so much dark adumbration of extinction, the overriding emotion governing these characters is not fear but anger. Gradually we come to realize that Boyle’s true subject is not the pitfalls of environmental activism but the endless human capacity for self-righteous indignation and our perverse drive to destroy what we love most in our rage to save it. The extended battle between Alma and LaJoy takes surprising and even outrageous turns, features scenes of cold killing and sensuous sex and incorporates clever narrative jokes and allusions along the way. One, in particular, involves snakes, a creature whose introduction into the tale is all but inevitable, given the Edenic paradise both activists are futilely trying to regain.
In the end, When the Killing’s Done serves as a sign of the times, faithfully portraying the obsessions of our era, but also as a timeless reminder of the flaws and frailties that have characterized human beings from the beginning of our history. This latter grim fact actually provides a strange source of solace by the end of the novel. It is perversely comforting to know that even as our world is irrevocably changing—as species disappear from the earth forever, as our oceans run dark with spilled oil and radioactive contamination and as our air thickens with carbon-emissions—at least human nature remains the same.