Book review: ‘When the Killing’s Done’ by T.C. Boyle

Special to the Los Angeles Times

When the Killing’s Done

A Novel

T.C. Boyle

Viking: 384 pp., $26.95


Mudslides, earthquakes, floods, fires — nothing quite gets T.C. Boyle’s juices going like a natural disaster putting his characters through the wringer. His new novel, “When the Killing’s Done,” opens with an action set piece that is unusually fraught and tense even by the author’s nearly apocalyptic standard. It’s 1946, and Tilden Matthew Boyd (better known as Till), his brother Warren and Till’s wife, Beverly, take a boat from Santa Monica and cruise to Anacapa, one of the Channel Islands off Oxnard and Santa Barbara.

The first day on the ocean passes smoothly, happily, but Beverly — who doesn’t know she’s two months pregnant — wakes in her bunk the next morning and finds everything changed: A “great angry fist seemed to be slamming at the hull with a booming repetitive shock that concussed the thin mattress and the plank beneath it and worked its way through her till she could feel it in the hollow of her chest, in her head, in her teeth.” The weather has “gone crazy all of a sudden,” and they face mountainous seas with “black volcanoes of water.”

The boat founders, and they launch the skiff, which is soon capsized. Both men are lost, drowned, but Beverly survives, clinging first to wreckage, and, when the ocean decides to give her something back, to the buoyancy provided by a Sears, Roebuck ice-chest. Lovely detail. She’s adrift, still far from any land; she’s bleeding and she knows sharks may come. Burned by the sun, parched with thirst, Beverly is washed ashore, only to be trapped by jagged rocks and sheer cliffs. At last she swims to a safer haven, makes land, climbs away from the ocean, finds a shack.

Is her ordeal done? Of course not — she’s in a T.C. Boyle story. “It takes a moment for her eyes to adjust, the shapes manifesting themselves all at once — furred, quick-footed, tails naked and indolently switching, a host of darkly shining eyes fastening on her without alarm or haste because she was the interloper here, the beggar, she was the one naked and washed up like so much trash — she let out a low exclamation. Rats.”

This wonderful, funny, scary, shivery plot punch line, delivered with casual panache after 35 pages or so of vivid action, sets up the rest of the novel. Those rats, Boyle explains, infested Anacapa Island (which is indeed where Beverly was beached) after fleeing another wreck back in the Gold Rush days, and they’ve been multiplying and destroying the previously indigenous wildlife ever since.

Beverly’s granddaughter, Alma Boyd Takesue, who would never had made it into Boyle’s Darwinian narrative universe had not her grandmother been such a tough and resourceful survivor, is now a biologist, heading up the efforts of the National Parks Service to eradicate the rats with poison pellets dropped by helicopter, thus restoring Anacapa’s original eco-system.

Alma is neat, smart, accomplished, a likable woman — but she’s uptight. Her antagonist is Dave LaJoy, a Santa Barbara businessman who has made a small fortune selling sound systems and is now a nut for animal rights. The boorish and ironically named LaJoy bristles with rage, hates Alma and wants to save the rats on Anacapa and then the feral pigs on nearby Santa Cruz Island that are Alma’s next target. LaJoy hassles Alma — he heckles her at meetings, gets her car vandalized, plants a spy inside her office. And as Alma moves ahead, so LaJoy, with his folksinger girlfriend Anise, launches ever crazier, more elaborate counterplots, inveigling a journalist and mounting forays into the islands themselves.

It all ends in tragedy and irony, violence springing, as so often in Boyle, from the misplaced longing to do good and the intransigent need to be right. Or, as LaJoy has it, “never crap out, never say die, never, above all else, admit you’re wrong.” It’s a dinosaur formula that leads to extinction.

This novel, his 12th, like a previous one, “The Tortilla Curtain,” is based on real events and conflicts. That’s to say, rats did populate Anacapa as described here, and the National Parks Service did provoke a brouhaha after dropping rat poison on the island in 2001. Boyle is, in this respect, a traditional, even old-fashioned writer, determined, as Dickens was, to entertain and bring the news. His jazzy, slangy, iridescent style could scarcely be more of the moment, however: “He watches with real interest, the fringe of her skirt thrust up in back and her breasts gone heavy with gravity … and how long has it been since they’ve had sex? Was it last weekend? Seven whole days?”

Boyle warms his readers even to LaJoy’s blunt needs after giving Anise tragic and aching depth through the story of her mother, another formidable matriarch. Alma and Anise could be friends, if fate allowed, but fate doesn’t, and this is a book about people who consider other people to be of little value and who fight about animals instead. Alma wears the white hat, LaJoy the black, but Boyle lets neither off the hook, showing how nature will always bite back and turn even the best human endeavor to water and dust.

He’s never not a funny writer, whether flexing his muscles in the delirious sprints that are his short stories, or in the intricately plotted and sometimes slightly schematic marathons of novels like this one; he writes lyrically, beautifully — about the ocean, the land, about California history and its pitfalls and perils. His message, though, is almost Swiftian: There’s no God, not much hope, and every person, every animal, every organism is indeed involved in a brute war, a war in which victory grants survival but survival always entails consequences of sad irony. Boyle makes us laugh and wonder at his dazzling gifts but his comedy is a dark business.

Rayner is the author, most recently, of “A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming of Age.”