T.C. Boyle is in a groove. He’s that rare combination of a bold writer who is consistently fun and seemingly, he’s becoming more prolific. His last novel, the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired bestseller The Women, was released in 2009 and now, quick on its heels comes his 13th novel, When the Killing’s Done, a colorful, quick-witted and entirely plausible account of environmental activism and bureaucratic bumbling in and around California’s Channel Islands. Topically it might remind you of the cerulean warbler section of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, but whereas Franzen’s foray into wildlife issues felt so tangential and agonized into being that there was a temptation to skim through that meandering West Virginia bird sanctuary section, When the Killing’s Done is thoroughly engaging and cohesive. There isn’t a dull moment in it.
It’s always been Boyle’s great gift to take the reader somewhere (Alaska, the Hudson River Valley 300 years ago, Kinsey’s inner circle, a pot farm in Northern California) and completely convince you of the accuracy of the surroundings he gives you. Not just geographically, but politically, socially and culturally. Bits of Boyle stick with me; In the early 90s, new to California, I read his hilariously picaresque Budding Prospects, the pot farm novel, in which a character describes a San Francisco burrito as the shape and size of a skein of yarn (with considerably more heft). I have thought with pleasure of this description virtually every time I have lifted a burrito since. Which is to say, roughly a thousand times.
I became even fonder of Boyle after reading his 1995 novel The Tortilla Curtain, which I interpreted, rather desperately, as a small validation of my newspaper career. In the early 90s, I worked for the Ventura County edition of the Los Angeles Times. Resume-wise, you’d have called this a stepping stone, but I recall it more as rowing in the newspaper equivalent of a slave ship. The paper was making a “push” into the county, a dreary no-man’s land between the busy San Fernando Valley, where porn was made, and the relative paradise of Santa Barbara, where there were art-house movies, good bookstores and a taqueria Julia Child was known to frequent. Our local readership was perilously small, but we published two zoned editions of this local section. No story was too small to cover. Any idle musing that struck an editor during his or her commute could and would be turned into a story by we eager minions. That was how I once came to write a profile of Highway 101. I am referring to an inert stretch of tar.
This was all educational, but miserable, and the concern that barely anyone was reading what we were writing loomed large. Then along came The Tortilla Curtain, a witty, fast moving study in contrasts between the entitled residents of gated communities on the edges of the Santa Monica Mountains and the poor Latino immigrants who have the temerity to make them nervous. Boyle, who lives in Montecito – for most of the last two decades, in a Frank Lloyd Wright home, lucky man – knew so much about the politics of pettiness and fear that ran rampant through what we often called “suburban enclaves” that I was certain he was reading our zoned edition of the Los Angeles Times. Someone was paying attention. And unlike us, he had a true sense of the big picture.
Many years later and many miles away from Ventura County, my realization that Boyle had written a novel about the Channel Islands nearly made my heart skip a beat. This is precisely the book I always wanted to read. From Ventura, the Channel Islands loom like magical temptations out there on the Western horizon, mostly just the long low ridge of Anacapa (technically, three small islands) and the green hills of Santa Cruz Island. Santa Rosa is hidden behind the hulk of Santa Cruz, and San Miguel is farther north, off Santa Barbara, but reportedly, nothing happened there. I visited Anacapa and Santa Cruz, a good boat ride’s distance away, whenever there was the thinnest journalistic excuse to do so. There were bureaucratic control issues — the Nature Conservancy owned most of Santa Cruz but the National Park Service had a say in what happened on part of that vast island (four times the size of Manhattan, Boyle tells us), as well as all of Anacapa and even in the 1990s there were the same ecological issues that Boyle focuses on. The islands are beautiful, mysterious and though largely deserted, rich with history (once they had belonged to people, actual people, mostly ranchers, who got to live there). They exist as time capsules of what California might have looked like 200 years ago. On these blissful days reporting out on the islands, you could count on a day of freedom from yet another editorial whipping. Even more alluring, you could imagine all the histories that might have been.
Boyle has done just that, but put it on the page, interweaving true facts and scenarios with a group of fictional modern day characters with warring interests in the ecological future of the islands. National Park Service biologist Alma Boyd Takesue is leading the fight against the invasive species overrunning the native populations of the islands, in the case of Anacapa, black rats who landed there via shipwreck in 1853 (true story) and on Santa Cruz, feral pigs descended from the pigs left there by ranchers. Alma’s grandmother survived a 1946 shipwreck (fiction) that killed her grandfather and spent three weeks shooing away black rats in a fisherman’s shack before being rescued. Now Alma wants to eradicate those rats. And when they’re gone, she plans to move onto Santa Cruz’s pigs, which are destroying the habit of the native island fox (a smaller breed than is found on the mainland).
Her main opponent is the Santa Barbara-based leader of a group called For the Protection of Animals (FPA), Dave LaJoy, a wealthy, vitriolic middle-aged vegetarian whose favorite recreational activity is to pilot his big motor boat out to the Channel Islands and enjoy nature while swilling beer and eating hummus sandwiches. LaJoy is an animal lover – he believes even a black rat has as much right on Anacapa as some native bird – and a people hater, with the possible exception of his girlfriend Anise, a beautiful folksinger. Anise had the unusual pleasure of having spent most of her childhood in the 1970s on Santa Cruz; her mother Rita worked as a cook for a sheep rancher who leased a sizeable chunk of the land (the section of the book involving Rita’s days on Santa Cruz is wonderfully evocative). In a neat twist, the pigs brought there by earlier ranchers lead to the ruin of that exhausting but rewarding ranch life, and yet still, Anise wants to save them.
The book flies by – LaJoy, with his “rusty dreadlocks” and fits of rage, is horrible yet hilariously entertaining, a man driven by arrogance and conviction in equal parts – but it’s not just a good yarn; Boyle has a real point to make, about population control of all beasts (and mankind). Alma is the protagonist certainly, but that doesn’t make her right in all circumstances. What for instance, would ground zero truly be for the Channel Islands, in terms of ecology? To truly erase all signs of man’s past interference with the natural habitat requires fresh interference by man. If the pigs are removed, what will become prey for the eagles that were drawn to the island by the ready food source the pigs presented? The island fox, as it turns out. So the raptors now have to be caught and removed. The minute Alma gets rid of one invasive species, it seems she has another to deal with. Who, or what, is meant to have ownership of and residency on these islands? The question isn’t really answerable, and Boyle plays with that ambiguity to great effect. The basic facts of what he’s telling, through told through fictional characters, really happened. And I finally have actual proof that Boyle reads the paper, having found this on his website: “…I still preserve a yellowing newspaper headline from six or seven years ago (it’s pinned beneath a magnet on the refrigerator door), which reads: EAGLES ARRIVE AS PIGS ARE KILLED, a reference to the reintroduction of the bald eagle and the eradication of the feral pig.”
Boyle has a joyful willingness to go over the top, trips he almost always negotiates with uncanny expertise. There’s a wildly harrowing scene involving LaJoy dragging a group of idealistic college kids up into the canyons of Santa Cruz Island during a powerful rain storm. He makes you see them slogging through the mud, soaked and shivering but propelled forward by this bombastic, charismatic jerk and we see how LaJoy clings to his sense of rightness even when it has become terribly apparent he’s made a huge mistake. In terms of the narrative, this would have satisfied as LaJoy’s comeuppance, but Boyle has another, less successful and surprisingly harsh final set piece in mind for the founding members of FPA.
But because of all he gets right, because of his fine sense of the big picture and his ability to convey it using characters that always come alive, I can forgive him it. I can even forgive him the character Toni Walsh, an utterly unappealing, rather dim seeming reporter from the local paper. She’s disdained and distrusted by both Alma and LaJoy. Although she’s covering environmental issues, Toni Walsh appears to have no interest in nature. She spends most of her expeditions to the islands fishing in her purse for cigarettes and never wears suitable clothing. Here Toni is in a torrential downpour on Santa Cruz. LaJoy has brought her there looking for pig corpses to photograph, images he hopes will outrage the community. Her lone concession to the weather is an Easter egg pink slicker, a concession cancelled out by her unwise decision to wear matching sandals. LaJoy wants to know whether she can keep hiking. “Hunched, pale, a streak of yellowish mud painted across her cheek like a tribal cicatrice, she just shrugs. ‘I don’t know,’ she says after a moment, and here’s that stab of a smile again – a good sign, a very good sign – ‘I’m afraid I’m more of a city girl. But anything for a story, right?'” I swear I never would have worn pink sandals to Santa Cruz. But this joyful skewering suggests that Boyle has met a few of my brethren.