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Future Shock

Eric Zencey is the author of "Panama" and a collection of essays, "Virgin Forest." His second novel, "Fortune's Lap," is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux

T.C. Boyle often routes his narratives along factual rights-of-way, skewering the fanatics that history regularly tosses into view. “The Road to Wellville” sent up Dr. John Harvey Kellogg of Battle Creek, Mich., health and nutrition reformer, inventor of corn flakes and one of the more charismaticly dictatorial flakes of the 19th century. “Riven Rock” took on Stanley McCormick, scion of the inventor of the mechanical reaper, a turn-of-the-century millionaire with such an extreme case of “sexual hypochondriacal neurasthenia” that he was quarantined from women for 20 years.

So it comes as a surprise that “A Friend of the Earth” is set largely in the future. Yet breathe easy, this is no science fiction, nor has Boyle abandoned his roots. The epiphanous moments and hapless exploits of his protagonist, an ecological saboteur, are clearly drawn from our not-so-distant monkey-wrenching past. The novel opens in the year 2025 on the Southern California estate of absentee rock star Maclovio Pulchris, a menagerist whose collection, like Noah’s, is meant to preserve genetic possibility. In 2025, wild animals are rare, especially the large and quadrupedal, especially the ones nobody ever took as totems: wart hogs, peccaries, jackals, hyenas. Mac’s zoo-full is tended by our hero, Tyrone Tierwater, 75 years young (age having become completely relative: “old old” folks are different from “young old” folks like Tyrone, people who have benefited from unspecified medical advance).

Zoo-keeping is quite the challenge for Tyrone. Meat for carnivores is scarce, and global warming has amplified Southern California’s natural swing of seasons into hyperbolic oscillation, making assault by weather a significant risk for anything living outdoors. (People, as ever, are infinitely adaptive: Characters hardly flinch when storm-borne debris crashes against their houses.) In a world of immoderate weather and novel disease, mass extinctions and dietary nostalgia (“people crave meat and fish and broccoli, the things they can’t get”), who better to tend a collection of scarce breeding pairs than a man thrice imprisoned for eco-terrorism?

The plot is driven by the appearance of Tyrone’s ex-wife Andrea, eco-warrior extraordinaire who hopes her favorite political action group (a direct-acting Earth First! knockoff) will benefit from closer association to Maclovio’s wealth. Boy reunites with girl; complications ensue; boy and girl survive a meteorologically precipitated cataclysm. First-person chapters intercut with third-person chapters set in the 1980s and ‘90s, when Tyrone, under Andrea’s tutelage, progressed from unthinking consumer to committed eco-warrior. That transformation, told in flashback, is the engine of the novel.

Both narratives come to us in trademark Boyle prose: “exuberant,” “manic” and “caffeinated,” various reviewers have called it. Boyle can be casually, effortlessly hyperbolic. A grill-tending chef stands in “a torpedoed freighter of smoke,” Tyrone’s heart “is broken--or, no, it’s smashed, laid out on the chopping block and beaten with a mallet till all the fibers have been reduced to paste.” The prose startles with vivid simile, with literary circumlocution (“Mac’s shoulders work, the fedora rides” tells us the man is walking). The story careens along with the breathless authority of a roller coaster: Step in and you’ll be jounced, dizzied, thrilled and surprised by this thing you’ve given yourself up to.

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As critics have remarked, Boyle’s virtuoso use of language sometimes eclipses character development. In an ongoing sleight-of-hand that becomes fully evident only at story’s end, his tales sometimes let energy of style substitute for character-borne narrative drive: no grave fault in a satirist, but lately Boyle has been aiming higher. On his Web site, he describes a continuity in theme between his previous novel and this one: “The Tortilla Curtain” “addressed the questions of unlimited immigration and racism in the context of a Darwinian struggle for survival. Now I’m looking at the survival of the species itself, hurtling headfirst into a comedy that is nothing but tragedy.” Clearly, the environmental passions in the book aren’t being held up for ridicule, not the way John Harvey Kellogg’s passion for enemas was in “Wellville.” Readers learn enough of Tyrone’s methods to have a go at eco-sabotage themselves if they’re so inclined. Credible arguments about vegetarianism and species guilt are hashed and digested, and Tyrone drops a reading list’s worth of names of eco-thinkers. As Boyle has said (on his Web site), his purpose in “A Friend of the Earth” is to “ask hard questions about the future of the planet,” while “having some good fun with the notion of the apocalyptic novel in the process.”

Hard questions, good fun: even in this less pronounced form, the tragi-comic is a notoriously difficult straddle, and the success of any particular attempt will turn on the depth of its characters. Happily Tyrone, every inch a Boyle hyperbolist, has sufficient complexity to be a satisfying fictional acquaintance, though our empathy for him comes harder than it needs to. It’s difficult to care about a character more than the author does, and the hyperbolic energy and comic edge of the third-person narrative keeps us at a distance. Even so, Tyrone is fully human. His misfortunes are credibly rooted in an intemperate soul, an inability to temper his love for the planet with dispassionate thought about appropriate limits and tactics.

Immoderate weather, immoderate belief, immoderate prose: There’s a consistency of theme, setting and style in the novel. But cumulatively the fit of prose style to subject matter undercuts Boyle’s purpose: Tyrone, an energetic narrator, is frustratingly uninterested in moral depths, even when he’s drowning in them. Take his flirtation with mass murder, his “final solution” to Earth’s woes. (“A friend of the earth,” he says repeatedly, is “an enemy of the people.”) At one point, he rows onto a reservoir with enough tetrodotoxin aboard to kill a city but decides to forbear. By what further wrinkle in thought or feeling? At what cost to his ideals? Eco-misanthropes the world over would benefit from his answer, but it isn’t given: Tyrone reports the event as distant history, and says no more.

Boyle has long been celebrated for his comic genius, for his mastery of that side of the classic antinomy he explores here. In “A Friend of the Earth” he sets himself a new challenge, swinging a leg wide to plant a foot solidly on new ground. His work is the richer and more affecting for it. Part antic comedy, part ecological intelligencer, part heartfelt plaint, “A Friend of the Earth” is a comic novel on grievous themes, a serious exploration of tragic truths. It not only marks Boyle’s progress as a literary talent but demonstrates his consistent ability to entertain.


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