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for people who care about the West

Collateral damage

 

When the Killing's Done
T.C. Boyle
384 pages, hardcover: $ 26.95.
Viking, 2011.

One of the West's most prolific and trenchant novelists returns to a theme he previously explored in Tooth and Claw and A Friend of the Earth: our interactions with nature and their repercussions. T.C. Boyle's characters often root for the environment. The tension and narrative drive of his latest novel, When the Killing's Done, spring from the fact that they do so in quite contrary ways.

Alma Boyd Takesue, an Asian-American conservation biologist with the National Park Service, is a workaholic who wants to see feral animals such as free-ranging cats exterminated "in fact and by law." (This makes her a "green extremist" in the eyes of some other characters.) She oversees the poisoning of invasive rats and the shooting of feral pigs that threaten the native fauna of two Northern Channel Islands  -- California's Galapagos. Dave LaJoy is a dreadlocked, BMW-driving businessman and animal-rights activist -- and a racist with an anger-management problem. The two become entangled in a spiral of retaliation and environmental sabotage, revealing the painful rifts in a movement often seen as monolithic. Takesue struggles with her mixed heritage and with losing her neglected, less-radical boyfriend. LaJoy, a vegetarian, evicts the raccoons that violate his newly laid lawn, inadvertently injuring them in the process.

Nature is not gentle in this book. Within the first 50 pages, two shipwrecks occur. Alma's grandmother, Beverly, who is pregnant with Alma's mother, barely escapes the first wreck, which kills her husband. The second flashback shows a Gold Rush clipper foundering off Anacapa Island and disgorging rats -- the very rodents whose progeny Alma is bent on destroying. Yet another narrative strand follows Rita, the hard-bitten single mother of LaJoy's folksinger girlfriend. Rita takes a job cooking for a sheep outfit on Santa Cruz Island. A gruesome slaughter at the ranch traumatizes her young daughter, who later joins LaJoy in his crusade for animal rights.

Unfolding with Boyle's trademark timing and linguistic verve, a third shipwreck marks the novel's climax, during which LaJoy, the Paladin's skipper, experiences a moment of profound self-doubt.

In Boyle's "skewed and doomed world," people are willing to compromise the integrity of their ideals in pursuit of them. LaJoy endangers the lives of volunteers on one of his eco-sabotage missions; Takesue accepts that native birds and rare mice could suffer from the rat poisoning. It is all part of the Darwinian struggle, that "aleatory tumble" that swallows the unfit and unlucky.

Boyle doesn't mind sending readers to the dictionary. His prose can be excessive: storm spray like "the whipping tail of an underwater comet" -- or spot on: "Victorian furniture so dense and dark it squeezed all the light out of every room." At times, it's downright hilarious -- wine casks "standing in ranks like monuments to all those corrupted livers of the past." Always, however, it shatters ingrained perceptions. Boyle's excursions into Latin species names or principles of island biogeography may impede the story's flow for some readers. But others will find that they simply bolster the believability of his fictional universe.

With the same care he gives to science, Boyle examines emotional wounds and their physical equivalents -- the loss of a homestead and way of life, a break-up caused by a pregnancy, skin "flayed and raw, the meat showing through in a long scything gash." He bares our species' mammalian underbelly, our glaring vulnerability: the breach between reason and instinct, between compassion and selfishness. When the Killing's Done refuses to placate or offer easy solutions. Like the novel's protagonists, the reader is faced with many dilemmas. Can we justify killing one species to save others? Does a friend of the earth need to be an enemy of people? And what, exactly, is this "pristine" environment we are trying so hard to preserve?