On the unease of violent people

Review of T.C. Boyle's 'The Harder They Come."

 

Extreme behavior inspires Santa Barbara-based novelist T.C. Boyle, whether it’s the megalomania evinced by brilliant men such as Frank Lloyd Wright (The Women) and Alfred Kinsey (The Circle), or humanity’s dismaying readiness to revert to animalistic behavior (When The Killing’s Done). In his 25th book, The Harder They Come, Boyle finds hard-charging drama in the lives of Westerners whose beliefs and delusions push them toward destructive actions.

Two real-life news events sparked Boyle’s imagination. In 2007, a 70-year-old Vietnam veteran on vacation in Costa Rica killed a would-be robber with his bare hands. Then, in 2014, authorities captured a California fugitive who’d been surviving in the Utah wilderness for years, robbing cabins and hunting animals.

In The Harder They Come, Sten Stenson- is the strapping veteran and retired school principal who saves his fellow elderly tourists during a stickup. He’s treated as a hero after the incident, but the killing makes him uneasy, as do his constant worries about his mentally ill grown son, Adam.

Adam is living in his deceased grandmother’s house in Mendocino County, California, training as a survivalist and raising poppies in the woods for an opium harvest. Obsessed by the exploits of the legendary mountain man John Colter, he is spinning out into what seem to be schizophrenic delusions.

Out hitchhiking one day, Adam is picked up by Sara, a middle-aged farrier who is vehemently anti-government. She initiates a fling with Adam that culminates in a spate of law-breaking.

Writing in close third-person that switches between the three characters’ perspectives, Boyle captures the runaway train of their thoughts. “Seatbelt laws were just another contrivance of the U.S. Illegitimate Government of America the Corporate that had given up the gold standard back in 1933 and pledged its citizens as collateral so it could borrow and keep on borrowing,” Sarah rails.

The reader is carried along on the rushing stream of their perverse logic and intermittently feels sympathy for them. The Harder They Come reminds us of an uncomfortable truth: As much as we might want to dismiss violent people who hold extreme beliefs as isolated, deranged kooks, they’re as human as the rest of us. They’re also living among us, and some of them might be ready to blow at any moment.

The Harder They Come
By T.C. Boyle
384 pages, hardcover: $27.99.
Ecco, 2015.