T.C. Boyle has no interest in looking back. Yes, he's at a milestone moment; his new book, "The Harder They Come" (Ecco: 384 pp., $27.99), is his 25th. At 66, he's reached emeritus status at USC, where he began teaching in 1978, and next week he will receive the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement at the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes.
"I do understand that just about everyone who has ever lived on Earth has died," Boyle says with a laugh over the phone from Washington, D.C., where he is on book tour. "But I'm halfway through a new novel and have written five new stories. So I haven't run out of excitement about fiction yet."
Excitement has long been Boyle's hallmark, going back to his first collection, "Descent of Man" (1979) and his debut novel, "Water Music" (1982). In those books, he established the template from which he continues to operate: to write fiction that is character-driven but also, to some extent issues-oriented, attuned to the particular lunacy of its times.
This is certainly the case with "The Harder They Come," a novel that zeros in on three central figures — Sten Stensen, a septuagenarian ex-Marine who opens the novel by killing a thief in self-defense while on a Costa Rican cruise; his son Adam, a schizophrenic who has taken to the hills of Mendocino in full survivalist mode; and a libertarian anarchist named Sara who rejects "the U.S. Illegitimate Government of America the Corporate." There is social commentary here as well as family dynamics and even a bit of parody.
"One of the reasons I've been able to be productive," Boyle enthuses, "is that I want to do everything. I love the hyperbolic, over-the-top, Mark Twain-style story, but I embrace all kinds of narrative, from the absurd to the real." As an example, he cites his 2004 story "Chicxulub," in which a father reflects on the dangers and disruptions of love and parenthood, using the asteroid that struck Earth and killed the dinosaurs as a defining metaphor for how little we can actually control.
"The Harder They Come" is not so cosmic in its implications; its focus is on the here and now. Given Adam's survivalist intentions and Sara's anti-government rhetoric, it's tempting to call it a political novel, but this is a label Boyle rejects.
"I don't start with an agenda," he says of all his writing. "What higher art does is to invite us in and allow us to make decisions. The novel is a seduction; a reader has to be seduced. 'The Tortilla Curtain' is often referred to as my most political novel, but even there I was just exploring something, not pushing a point of view. If the novel is working, it puts the reader in the position of determining its meaning. You can find the characters sympathetic or antipathetic. But either way, you decide."
"The Tortilla Curtain" may be the most obvious antecedent to "The Harder They Come." Both novels deal with the tension between residents and outsiders in an insular yet changing California, and both address hot-button topics (immigration, sovereign rights). "The Harder They Come," however, has a specific antecedent: the true story of Aaron Bassler, a mentally ill man who in 2011 killed two people in Fort Bragg, Calif., and disappeared into the surrounding woods. The ensuing five-week manhunt covered 400 square miles.
Boyle is known for working history and research into his novels; "Riven Rock" appropriates the story of Stanley McCormick, the schizophrenic heir to the International Harvester fortune, while "The Inner Circle" zeroes in on Alfred Kinsey and his investigations into human sexuality. Still, in this new book it's less history than proximity he seeks.
Among the novel's most chilling passages are those that evoke Adam's perspective, especially his identification with John Colter, the Lewis and Clark scout considered to be the first mountain man. Indeed, as "The Harder They Come" progresses, Colter's saga becomes a mythic counterpoint to Adam's slow deterioration. "The trick," Boyle explains, "is to inhabit Adam's point of view. He's delusional, but we need to understand where he is coming from."
Partly, that's a function of voice, of personality, of imagining one's way into Adam's language, his humanity. "Adam wants to sustain himself," Boyle suggests, "to live free with no master. In that sense, he's representative of a kind of don't-tread-on-me strand of American anti-authoritarianism, which is an ethos that still obtains."
What Boyle's describing is if not identification then a form of empathy, the necessity of imagining the character as not just an antagonist but also somebody's lover, somebody's son. "One of my closest friends," he recalls, "became schizophrenic when we were in our late teens, so part of what I'm channeling comes out of that."
More to the point, though, are the questions Adam raises, questions that sit at the center of the book. "I have sympathy for Adam and for Sara," Boyle admits — but at the same time he is a bomb just waiting to go off. We are not surprised when he explodes into violence; in a very real way we've been waiting for it all along.
Here too we see the momentum of the narrative, the inevitable outcome of the plot that Boyle has put in place. The role of the writer, as Boyle suggests, is to tell the story as it happens, to listen to the characters, their intentions, to create them as fully as possible on the page.
"This," Boyle explains, "is the beauty of fiction. We may not like these characters, but we inhabit them. I have sympathy for Adam — and for Sara — even though I abhor their politics. Adam is delusional, but the novel doesn't work if we don't understand where he's coming from. It evolves organically out of meditating on American violence, and a shooter turning on society."
Boyle will appear at the Festival of Books on April 18.