Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: When the Killing's Done, by T.C. Boyle

Ecologists and animal rights activists clash off the California coast.

When the Killing's Done

Viking, 2011, 369 pages

Principally set on the wild and sparsely inhabited Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara, T. C. Boyle’s powerful new novel combines pulse-pounding adventure with a socially conscious, richly humane tale regarding the dominion we attempt to exert, for better or worse, over the natural world.

Alma Boyd Takesue is a National Park Service biologist who is spearheading the efforts to save the islands’ endangered native creatures from invasive species like rats and feral pigs, which, in her view, must be eliminated. Her antagonist, Dave LaJoy, is a dreadlocked local businessman who, along with his lover, the folksinger Anise Reed, is fiercely opposed to the killing of any species whatsoever and will go to any lengths to subvert the plans of Alma and her colleagues.

Their confrontation plays out in a series of escalating scenes in which these characters violently confront one another, contemplate acts of sabotage, court danger, and tempt the awesome destructive power of nature itself. Boyle deepens his story by going back in time to relate the harrowing tale of Alma’s grandmother, Beverly, who was the sole survivor of a 1946 shipwreck in the channel, as well as the tragic story of Anise’s mother, Rita, who in the late 1970s lived and worked on a sheep ranch on Santa Cruz Island.

In dramatizing this collision between protectors of the environment and animal rights activists, Boyle is, in his characteristic fashion, examining one of the essential questions of our time: Who has the right of possession of the land, the waters, the very lives of all the creatures who share this planet with us?

I am not sure what to make of an author who renames himself from "Thomas John" Boyle to "T. Coraghessan Boyle" and then decides just to go to "T.C. Boyle." Seems awfully pretentious to me. T.C. Boyle is one of those English professor lit-novelist types who writes American literary fiction mixing politics and human drama in a way that is skilled, prosaic, and just kind of left me cold despite the indisputable craftsmanship of his writing.

When the Killing's Done is a story about environmental activists, ecologists, and bad boyfriends that plays out in California, specifically around the Channel Islands.

Anacapa Islands

Dave LaJoy is a wealthy businessman who got rich with a chain of electronic stores. He's taken up animal rights activism, and his current cause is preventing the murder of rats and feral pigs on the Channel Islands. Ecologists want these invasive species eradicated, but LaJoy waxes woefully about the "damned pig murderers" and organizes protests, fights them legally, and ultimately, leads an ill-fated expedition to sabotage their mission.

His primary nemesis is Alma Boyd Takasue, a third-generation Japanese-American who is the lead environmentalist trying to restore the islands' natural ecology.

As a story of animal rights vs. environmentalists, this would be just a pedestrian socio-political thriller, but Boyle does not get up on a soapbox or make it clear which side he stands on. He portrays the motivations and personalities and family histories of the characters in rich detail, as rich as his vivid, poetic descriptions of the Channel Islands and the wildlife (imported and otherwise) that lives there.

Certain of the characters are certainly more sympathetic, however. Dave LaJoy may love animals, but he hates people. Indeed, it quickly becomes apparent that he is the villain of the story, whatever you think of his cause. Besides being a rabble-rouser and a zealot, he's also just generally an asshole. We learn this in the ironic twist that LaJoy actually went on a date with Alma Takasue, before their current confrontation. It was a very bad date — LaJoy, with his white-dude dreads and abrasive treatment of waitstaff, oozes aggression and entitlement and anger management issues.

A few years later, Takasue is leading the campaign to eradicate invasive species from the Channel Islands, and the fact that it's her, of all people, in charge of the killing just enrages LaJoy all the more.

Most of the men in this book come off looking rather badly, from Dave LaJoy to the environmentalist boyfriend of one of the other activists, who does a cowardly skedaddle when she comes up pregnant, to the abusive father of LaJoy's girlfriend, a minor character who nonetheless gets several chapters devoted to her and her family history.

While an excellent example of American literature in terms of the writing quality and presenting a believable, three-dimensional story, I didn't find When the Killing's Done to be much of a page-turner. It's more akin to one of the less compelling old classics that one might read for literary edification, but not so much for entertainment. But T.C. Boyle has a considerable following, so I may try another of his novels to see what sort of range he has as an author.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, literary, reviews

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