How many times since T.C. Boyle began publishing in 1979 has traditional fiction been declared dead, moribund, irrelevant?
And yet here he comes again, riding up on “The Harder They Come,” a full-throated Harley Davidson of a novel, his 15th (in addition to 10 stellar books of stories). Here he’s using some of fiction’s least fashionable attributes, social realism, pointed action and thematic ambition, to brilliantly dissect America’s love affair with violence.
Fiction’s most recent deathwatch began with David Shields’ provocative 2010 book “Reality Hunger,” in which he diagnosed the traditional novel as “predictable, tired, contrived and essentially purposeless.” Other autopsies followed.
Like characters from “The Walking Dead,” surviving novelists are left to huddle in ever-shrinking refuges of scope and genre. The most recent is Knausgaard Island, where novelists live quietly, ignoring the bedlam outside as they mine their own interiors for selfie masterpieces. (How ironic that we used to worry about fiction clouding memoir when it turns out to have flowed the other way.)
In this meek climate, it’s a treat to read an expansive novel in which big characters (none of whom is a writer!) act out a gripping, grounded drama meant to expose some key aspect of the American character, in this case, the myth of self-reliance and its connection to paranoid jingoism. It’s the sort of novel critics might once have called writ large — and, dude, if its large writing you want, you could do worse than T.C. Boyle.
His prose manages to be both vivid and sharp, patient and pressing, blasting out of the gate with the story of Sten Stensen, a 70-year-old former teacher and ex-Marine (“retired — or pre-dead as he preferred to call it”) on a Costa Rica tour with his wife, Carolee.
“There was no slant to the sun — it was just there, overhead, burning, making him sweat. … Anonymous streets rolled by, shops, people, dogs, ratty-looking birds infesting the trees and an armed guard out front of every store.” Eventually, their little tour group is robbed at gunpoint and Sten goes all Clint Eastwood on the bandits. Such is the potency of Boyle’s story that even though he has expressed some discomfiting views of the people of the country in which he is a guest (“at least they could do sums”) we find ourselves, like the seniors on the cruise, glad to be on Sten’s side.
Ambiguous alliance is something fiction still does better than any other art form, and Boyle’s great at it. In much of his work, most strikingly, 2011’s “When the Killing’s Done,” his wry gaze is pointed at our dying environment and our wouldn’t-it-be-funny-if-it-weren’t-so-sad attempts to protect it. Here, Boyle examines another paradox of liberalism: how to reconcile a healthy disdain for our American aggression and colonialism with the need to protect against the dangers of the world.
And that’s just the first section of the novel.
Sten and Carolee return home to Mendocino County. (Another Boyle specialty: California.) Here the novel expands to include the Stensens’ son, Adam, a deluded twentysomething who runs around the woods tending his drug farm and fantasizing himself a modern-day John Colter — the scout for Lewis and Clark who became a mountain man and Indian fighter.
The lithe, loony, armed Adam catches the eye of his former substitute teacher, Sara Jennings, a 40-year-old government-hating animal groomer. Sara is a kind of Subaru-anarchist who call herself a “sovereign citizen” and rebels by not wearing a seat belt, telling police officers, “You have no authority over me … I have no contract with you.” Sara and Adam are, of course, headed for trouble, well-meaning Sten along for the ride.
Add to this mix a vigilante group called Take Back Our Forests, which is patrolling the woods around Mendocino for Mexican drug gangs. Sten falls in with the group as “a matter of ecology as much as anything.” But even he isn’t immune to nativism. “The gangs had taken over, there’d be beheadings next, bodies hanging from the bridges like in Tijuana, the forests lost and all hope of peace and tranquillity flown out the window.”
Boyle’s ability to balance subtle satire with pounding action leads to our hero chasing armed drug coyotes through the woods in a Toyota Prius; imagine the epic chase from “The French Connection” at an impressive 48 miles per gallon. (Rather than “Step on it,” a character tells Sten, “Goose it.”)
As much as this is a novel of big ideas, “The Harder They Come” never feels didactic, partly because Boyle doesn’t let up on the accelerator.
Gunshots are fired. Drugs are discovered. Racial tensions rise. Federal agents swarm. Meetings are held. “There had to be a meeting. … What was resolved? The color of the T-shirts they were going to give out at the coffee shop by way of drumming up support.”
If Boyle has created any problem for himself, it’s this: Much of his story is tied to characters, Adam and Sara, whose irrational, far-right, Uh-merican ignorance (or outright insanity) make them hard to follow with anything like sympathy. Even as the action amps up, emotional connection flickers.
Eventually Adam descends so deep into Colter he begins imagining himself into those 200-year-old adventures (with historical liberties and confusion about the Blackfoot versus Blackfeet tribes). These sections — deluded, racist, troubling — are again strangely thrilling to read, doubling down on Boyle’s idea from the first section that even as we dismiss the myth of the iconoclastic Westerner, we can’t deny its weird compulsive power.
The forces come together, the predestined violence comes to pass, and Boyle’s writing never loses energy or descriptive power. In the end, you might not be optimistic about our ability to reconcile the American myth to a dangerous future, but it’s at least nice to see there’s still a little blood left in our books.
Walter is the author, most recently, of the bestselling novel “Beautiful Ruins” and the story collection “We Live in Water.”
The Harder They Come
Ecco: 384 pp., $27.99