When T.C. Boyle swaggered onto the literary scene in the 1980s, brandishing flamboyantly bizarre short stories in one hand and wildly satirical novels like Water Music and Budding Prospects in the other, the exuberance of his sentences was often more impressive than the depth of his characterizations. He took a moralist’s aim at big targets—imperialism, class oppression, racial prejudice—but his stingingly funny dissections of human selfishness, self-delusion, greed, and misdirected ambition were rarely complicated by such awkward sentiments as compassion or complicity. Unlike plenty of his characters, however, Boyle has grown up a lot. Watching empathy infiltrate his pages has been one of the pleasures of following his prodigious career, which includes nine story collections and now a 13th novel.
Beginning with The Tortilla Curtain, a novel about illegal immigration published in 1995, Boyle has made a sustained effort to move beyond flat-out satire, disciplining his excesses, enlarging his sympathies, and honing his central preoccupation: the gap between our utopian dreams and the world’s messy reality. The dreams can be social—Alfred Kinsey’s mission to report honestly on human sexuality in The Inner Circle, Frank Lloyd Wright’s desire to create new spaces for living and working in The Women—or they can be radically antisocial: the ecoterrorists in A Friend of the Earth proudly declaring themselves enemies of the people. Always they fall short, as when members of a 1970s California hippie commune in Drop City confront their own materialism and nature’s brute force in the Alaskan wilderness.
When the Killing’s Done is Boyle’s finest novel yet. Depicting a fierce conflict over the best way to protect the natural environment of two islands off the California coast, he takes the long and tragic view. Of course our efforts to clean up the messes we’ve made are flawed, he suggests as he surveys more than a century’s worth of attempts to make those wild islands serve people’s economic demands. We are flinging ourselves at a natural order perennially evolving to take advantage of our missteps. If that makes it sound as though humor has been eclipsed by homiletics—well, in a way it has. There are some funny moments: Boyle is still Boyle, and he was never one for preaching, but the overall mood is rueful and somber.
Alma Boyd Takesue is in charge of National Park Service programs to eradicate rats that threaten Anacapa Island’s native bird population and to eliminate feral pigs that are wiping out the unique dwarf foxes on nearby Santa Cruz Island. (Both rats and pigs are non-natives introduced by human agency; Boyle’s description of their history and of the programs to exterminate them is factual.) Her nemesis is Dave LaJoy, founder of the group For the Protection of Animals. “Nazis, that’s what you are,” he proclaims. “Kill everything, that’s your solution.” Urged to be civil, he retorts, “I’ll be civil when the killing’s done.”
The killing, needless to say, is never done. Nature is as murderous as human beings, and neither is likely to change. Boyle makes this grim argument as he interweaves Alma and Dave’s running battles from 2001 to 2007 with the stories of two previous generations. With a majestic opening epigraph from Genesis, God bidding Adam and Eve to “replenish the earth and subdue it: and have dominion over … every living thing,” Boyle aims high with his drama of human hubris matched by nature’s indifferent savagery, and it works.
Dominion, we come to realize, is what both Alma and Dave want, though neither acknowledges it. Before their struggle begins, however, the novel’s first chapter plunges us into the ordeal of Alma’s grandmother aboard a small craft beset by a violent storm in the Santa Barbara Channel in 1946. Washed ashore on Anacapa, Beverly finds food and water in an empty cabin, and fights off hordes of the rats her granddaughter will later eliminate. By the time a Coast Guard cutter rescues her two weeks later, Beverly has come to hate the island for “its changeless, ceaseless, ongoing and never-ending placidity and indifference and sheer brainless endurance.”
Against this backdrop of implacable nature, Alma’s faith in benevolent stewardship of the land and Dave’s aggressive insistence on the sanctity of all animal life are equally suspect. Boyle would once have been content to expose their delusions with exaggerated strokes. Now he makes sure we see that each has a point and each has in some fundamental way missed the point.
Alma is the more appealing character, painfully aware of the irony inherent in killing some animals so that others may survive. She feels justified by her mission: to re-establish the natural harmony that existed on Anacapa and Santa Cruz “before humans began altering it.” But pursuing this godlike goal renders her tone-deaf to the people around her. She fails to pick up glaring clues that her secretary is feeding information to For the Protection of Animals. She’s the second woman in the novel to get pregnant while faithfully employing birth control (a small but representative instance of Boyle’s skillful use of incidental details to build his case for the unruly force of nature), and then proves to be an overconfident social engineer in her own life: “we’re going to need to get married,” she announces to a boyfriend who has dropped numerous hints that he’s not particularly committed to their relationship. Alma’s [ws2] belief in her power to control is her biggest blind spot; Dave is right to sneer that she belongs to “the kind of people who think they can manipulate nature and make a theme park out of the islands.”
That’s not the only venomously accurate remark made by Dave, who voices the novel’s bitterest perceptions. He rubs our noses in the gruesome physical details of the exterminations Alma is anxious to euphemize: rats slowly bleeding to death from pesticides, hogs shot and left rotting, their eyes pecked out by ravens, their carcasses infested with maggots. He sees human beings dealing destruction wherever they go. Here’s a man who looks at cars lined up at a red light and smells “the exhaust coming out of their tailpipes in the last petrochemical gasp … the death of the earth, the death of everything.” Everything enrages him, from a fat waitress to a long line at Home Depot. His surname is a nasty joke. Joy is an emotion that Dave LaJoy never feels.
Dave is a classic Boyle crazy, expressing with naked honesty every repulsive emotion the rest of us labor to repress, embracing extremism no sane person would venture. What Boyle has done that he wouldn’t have bothered with 30 years ago is show us how miserable Dave is, how insecure, how completely incapable of finding happiness in the natural world he’s vowed to defend by any means necessary. But understanding does not equal forgiveness. Dave’s bedrock selfishness is exposed when he finds two raccoons tearing up his expensive new lawn. The black humor of this protector of animals phoning Animal Control is vintage Boyle, as is Dave’s impulsive decision to take the trapped raccoons and release them on Santa Cruz. He knows the havoc invasive species wreak, and he doesn’t care; it’s totally credible that this solipsist can’t resist the urge to save his lawn and get even with Alma.
Yet every incident Boyle depicts in the story of the islands over two centuries supports Dave’s assertion that humans should not tinker with nature. Alma gets gentler treatment than he does, not because her vision of the world is necessarily more accurate—she badly misreads a surprising final development on Santa Cruz—but because her partial view is spiritually healthier than his. Out on the islands, she feels “the pulse of something bigger, as if all things animate were breathing in unison, a glory and a connection that sweeps her out of herself.” Alma’s mistakes arise from her desire to honor that connection with nature, to undo the damage human beings have inflicted. Dave, driven by fury and incapable of empathy, ultimately thinks only of himself. Of course, that’s also true of the ravens and maggots feasting on the dead hogs of Santa Cruz.
Dave is stymied in the commission of his most reckless act of sabotage—or is he? The novel closes with two very different animals stalking the grasses of Santa Cruz. Predation, destruction, survival, and renewal: Human beings may interfere with this natural cycle, and one day they may damage it beyond repair. In this dark novel, itself a feat of creative engineering, Boyle tells us they will never master it.