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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • LAND & CABIN ON CO/ UT LINE
    18 ac w/small solar ready cabin. Off grid, no well. Great RV location. Surrounded by state wildlife area and nat'l parks.
  • MANAGER PERMACULTURE LANDSCAPE CONTRACTOR
    Permaculture / Landscape Company Manager / Site Lead Red Ant Works, Inc. - 20+ year landscape construction and horticultural care company seeks manager and site...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance is looking for a passionate, dynamic, organized, and technology-savvy communications professional to help grow our membership and presence in the Four...
  • ENERGY AND CLIMATE PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    San Juan Citizens Alliance seeks an Energy and Climate Program Associate to focus on public outreach, education and organizing to advance campaigns to mitigate climate...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    This position provides professional real estate services and is responsible for managing and completing real estate projects utilizing a project management database that is designed...
  • WILDFIRE MITIGATION SPECIALIST
    The Wildfire Mitigation Specialist is responsible for delivering wildfire risk mitigation information, recommendations and programmatic resources to wildland urban interface homeowners, community members and partners....
  • DEVELOPMENT POSITIONS
    Thorne Nature Experience is hiring for a Development Director and Senior Individual Giving Manager. Individuals will work collaboratively with Thorne's Executive Director to develop and...
  • SENIOR PROGRAM MANAGER, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION & ENERGY
    The National Parks Conservation Association, a 100-year-old nonprofit advocacy organization and the nation's leading voice for national parks seeks a Senior Program Manager, Landscape Conservation...
  • BACKCOUNTRY AND FRONTCOUNTRY STEWARDSHIP CREW MEMBERS
    The San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) is hiring a crew of ambassadors to work in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service to educate visitors on...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, NATURAL HISTORY INSTITUTE
    The Executive Director is the chief executive officer of the Natural History Institute (NHI). The Executive Director has broad authority to lead and manage the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    - The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region - The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful,...
  • SENIOR DEVELOPMENT ASSOCIATE
    Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a Senior Development Associate to coordinate the organization's individual giving program. The position description is available at http://greateryellowstone.org/careers Please email a...
  • TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISORS
    SEEKING TALENTED TRAIL CREWLEADERS The Pacific Crest Trail Association, headquartered in Sacramento, California ,is dedicated to protecting, preserving and promoting the Pacific Crest National Scenic...
  • ENDANGERED SPECIES POLICY ADVOCATE
    Are you a Guardian for wildlife, great and small, across the West? WildEarth Guardians (Guardians) seeks a full-time Endangered Species Policy Advocate (Advocate) for the...
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Native plant seeds for the Western US. Trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers and regional mixes. Call or email for free price list. 719-942-3935. [email protected] or visit...
  • THE LAND DESK: A PUBLIC LANDS NEWSLETTER
    Western lands and communities--in context--delivered to your inbox 3x/week. From award-winning journalist and HCN contributor Jonathan P. Thompson. $6/month; $60/year.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...