JULY 8, 2015
DURING A FEW SHORT DAYS spent in the stacks of the Johns Hopkins University library back in 1986, I consumed all that was available there of the work of T.C. Boyle — two daring story collections, Descent of Man (1979) and Greasy Lake, which had just come out. In those days, like most of my peers in the Writing Seminars graduate program, I became enamored of the writer’s gritty and glittering short stories, shamelessly over the top and rife with rock music. He could seemingly incorporate any element of contemporary culture into the short narrative form, delivering stories on an Elvis impersonator, a survivalist, Lassie, the bluesman Robert Johnson, a Norse poet, and a love affair between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Khruschev’s wife, all the while veering heedlessly and expertly through realism, myth, black comedy, and magical realism as if in a rush to show he could do it all (For some reason, the library didn’t carry his two early novels.) I never forgot those stories while I soldiered on through the works of Frederick Barthelme and Madison Smartt Bell and Bobbie Ann Mason.
Two years later, Boyle and I briefly crossed paths in Iowa City, where he was on the faculty, and I was laboring toward my MFA (Hopkins had only an MA in those days.) As a teaching fellow, I was enthralled by pedagogy, by how the hell one taught story writing, and I formally canvased the Workshop faculty for “models” on the reading and writing of short fiction. I received excellent concrete and useful responses from Francine Prose and Frank Conroy. From Boyle, I got this: “Can I use clay?”
Boyle’s snarky sense of humor has long been a staple of his work, as are bold plots and a knack for engaging a long and wide list of cultural touchstones and eras. His productivity is almost unsurpassed (save for Joyce Carol Oates or John Updike). With 25 works of serious fiction published over 36 years, his writing exists in that rare pantheon of seriously regarded, award-winning, and prodigiously produced fiction that somehow finds a larger audience. His haul of major awards began in 1988 with the PEN Faulkner Award for the novel World’s End and has continued with stunning regularity through 2014 with the Rea Award for the Short Story. He is often referred to as a rock star of American literature, and he often even resembles one in his choice of attire — red high-top sneakers, leopard-patterned pants.
If I have a quibble against the contemporary novel, it is that everything has to come together in the end. We know this, the writers know this, and, sadly, even the characters seem to know this. If a book begins with three or four points of view, we all know that at one moment they will all intersect. When I was younger and less well-read, this device used to produce suspense: how will they come together? Now, however, this device seems more often than not pre-ordained: could they all just come tofuckinggether so we can get on? There are many ways I wish that life were not so predictable: I wish there were no taxes, I wish there was no death. I wish there were no plot strands treading water while waiting to meet each other on some narrative high ground or sand bar from which we could finally attain the shore of the novel’s end.
The Harder They Come is no exception. Set on the Northern California coast, this novel engages us through three points of view, all in the third-person limited: Sten Stensen, a 70-year-old retired high school principal and ex marine; Adam, his son in his mid 20s, who suffers from something like paranoid schizophrenia; and Sara, a sometime substitute teacher and farrier in her 40s who used to work for the father and ends up the son’s lover, and, on top of that works for the same animal refuge where Adam’s mother volunteers. Here’s that confluence too, contrived to a point and conventional in that contemporary way in which things have to come together — so much so that one can practically hear the world-weary Sten yawn at the approaching intersection.
Sten and his wife, Carolee, have long struggled with Adam’s aberrant, anti-social, and violent behavior. Sara, a hardened right-wing anarchist, may be of some help: she can harness his sexual energy to her own (and his) gratification, but her own resentment of governmental control pales against his outright rage against all forms of restriction and authority. What follows is the downward spiral of Adam, whose vigorous defense of his mountain turf results in the death of two unarmed civilians. He becomes a wanted man, subject of the biggest manhunt in California history. The first impulse of both Sara and his parents are to choose him over the law, but, when confronted with a mass of evidence and huge public outcry, they surrender him to a fate executed by SWAT snipers.
While the excellence of the line-by-line execution is undeniable and unsurpassed, the trademark Boyle humor is not truly in play here. This is a serious novel, with serious tropes and themes, not unlike some of the work of Robert Stone, Denis Johnson, Tim O’Brien, or Richard Yates — earnest white guys, writing novels with bite that you can’t put down and you won’t forget, and what’s wrong with that? Nothing is wrong with that. This work is categorized by the forward-leaning quality of the prose, which recognizes tension and allows it to escalate naturally, which unleashes obsession and paranoia and all other instincts within that range and gives them free rein. A scene, early in the novel, when Sara freaks out about her impounded dog, calls to mind Doctorow and his predecessor von Kleist, who both offered protagonists undone by what began as a solvable problem. Thinks Sara:
He was in the last cage down, looking cowed, as if he’d done something wrong, as if it was his fault he’d been locked away in here, and she felt sick with the thought of what he’d been put through. It was a crime, that was what it was, and she was beyond caring now — just let them try to stop her.
Sara, an adherent to the Fourteenth Amendment and admirer of Jerry Kane, refuses ever to enter into any kind of contract “with the Republic of California.”
Boyle has long been a writer concerned with the environment and the erosion of intellect in the face of what constitutes contemporary culture. He avoids in this novel any integration or analysis of the self-absorption, self-promotion, and self-congratulation that fuel and flood social media, returning instead to reenvisioning the primitive family unit battling a host of psychological and social ills in light of the ongoing commerce of drugs and proselytization. In 384 pages, there isn’t a single reference to any social network, or emailing or tweeting or texting. Rather, people destroy or secret away their cellphones as a gesture against the new Big Brother. Wi-fi does not exist in these mountains.
Alongside these sideway social commentaries is also the deft and disconcertingly pointed portrait of the pot-growing industry’s ongoing attempt to poison the environment as a way of guarding against the intrusion of undesirables — tourists, hunters, hikers — into its ever-expanding and precious territory. Throughout the novel, we catch glimpses of contaminated creeks and downed animals corrupting the landscape and warning all who enter that it is toxic for a reason.
Of course, there are some minor glitches that distract, like the unhappily dehydrated tourist who orders a Diet Coke, or the characters who, for so much of the novel, are looking to put food “on” their stomachs (is this a new thing I’m not aware of?), or the thrifty farrier who still has a daily paper delivered to her doorstep. There are some guns on the wall that do not go off, like the fact that Sten, after heroically rescuing a tour group from a trio of thugs, intentionally identifies for incarceration an accomplice who was not even there and then never faces a consequence for this act of conscious dismissal. There are also characters, particularly female, particularly Adam’s mother, Carolee, who do not achieve the depth and complexity that they might clearly earn. Pathetically, at novel’s end, she is characterized as someone dealing with her grief by going around to antique stores looking for trifles, and, well, it makes her trivial. There’s something Darwinian about Boyle’s designees for point of view: whoever wants it most, gets it. Throughout the novel, Carolee possesses a fierceness that she is not allowed to realize fully, and I bet her point of view would be terrific.
Nonetheless, this novel delivers richly on so many fronts that it is difficult to enumerate them all: on the style front, with sweeping sentences and boldly overlong paragraphs that probe the complications of the conflicted soul; on the plot front, always a Boyle specialty, which eschews the easy and swift answer for the longer and more convoluted denouement; and on the vision front, which has so much to say about politics and the economy and the environment and just the nature of being human, so much so that at times you wish his characters would never stop ruminating, because they ascend the many tiers of complaint and analytic thought into a kind of psychic stratosphere rarely attained here on earth. As Sten ruminates:
Relax, he kept telling himself. Keep busy. Relax. Keep busy. The last thing he wanted was to wind up sitting in a recliner all day staring at the TV like some zombie or pulling on a sun visor to chase a golf ball around the fairways with a bunch of loudmouthed jocks. Or bridge. He hated bridge, hated games of any kind. But how did you relax? That was the problem he was trying to resolve — and certainly world-class indulgence wasn’t the answer.
Laced throughout is the energetically conveyed history of John Colter, a legendary guide and explorer during the time of Lewis and Clark. Colter could survive any situation and outrace any one, as imagined by his greatest admirer and emulator, Adam, who alights into clear-eyed evocation whenever he summons the image of the original mountain man. On the run [?], Adam internalizes Colter’s five-mile barefoot sprint from the Blackfeet as he combats what he conceives as “hostiles” and “aliens”:
So Potts was dead, dead in a matter of seconds, and Colter was standing there on the shore amidst all the hostiles howling like scorched demons and the women sending up their weird ululations of grief over the dead brave and half a dozen Indians in the creek now and wading to the canoe to drag it back to shore. Where they went at Potts’ corpse like a butcher’s convention, the women especially, hacking at him till he was unrecognizable, just meat, slick and wet and red. And Colter? Still there, still standing, still staring out unflinchingly, in another place altogether, ignoring them.
Boyle delivers the right kind of confluence — one of meaning and content and technique — in a ruthless unraveling of plot, which reveals the fully realized violence of all that has come before. Thinks Adam:
The hostile was fifty feet from him, red-faced, barking, everybody barking twenty-four/seven and he was tired of that, give it a break, give my ears a fucking break, and the hostile was saying, ‘You pack up your crap and get out of here,’ and that was when he pulled the trigger, twice, pop-pop, and it wasn’t like I didn’t even know my finger was on the trigger because he did know and he took aim the way he had a thousand times in target practice and the two shots went home and dropped that hostile like he was a suit of clothes with nobody in it.
Ultimately, Boyle taps into the horrific and poignant irony of the principal’s son, the hero’s son, being the lunatic killer, and how his father and mother must come to terms with that fact. Boyle’s is a deep exploration of what is usually referred to as “every parent’s nightmare”: For all the goodwill and generosity and love Adam’s parents bring to their child, they can still fail at raising an infant into a humane being. A father of three himself, Boyle hurls himself thoroughly into this unnerving scenario, so that when we finally arrive at Sten’s recognition of just what it is he has co-created, the novel, already so fast and smart, becomes faster and smarter still, as if, like Colter’s legendary five-mile race to the river, it couldn’t possibly stop until it erupts from the inside out, its vast intelligence and tremendous powers of human observation spilling themselves all over the page until there is nothing left to spill:
But the thing that lingered longer than the sorrow, the thing he just couldn’t shake, was the shame. It was like a dream you can’t wake from […] He tried to be bigger than the shame, tried to get on with his life, but he found he couldn’t really face people anymore, couldn’t look anybody in the eye, even strangers, without wondering if they knew and how much they knew — it got to the point where he began to think there was no other solution but to pack up and move.
Alongside this resonant achievement is the prose itself, so constantly forward-leaning that even when the novel is done, you will turn the blank page hoping for more, its constant headlong urgency acting like a drug. Near the novel’s end, Sten is insulted by a punk in a parking lot, who tells him, “Why don’t you watch where you’re going. Grandpa.” Sten, who will never be a grandpa, reacts:
And here it came again — boom! — gasoline on the coals. He was five feet from him, from this kid who couldn’t have been more than eighteen or nineteen, the apprentice tough guy, the clown in the truck with the big-dick tires. He should have just let it go but he couldn’t. “Fuck you,” he rasped, his voice clenched in his throat.
At one point, well into the drafting of this review, I remembered the first interviewer who ever asked for my opinion of another writer. This was back in 1989, when a reporter from the Chicago Tribune visited the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and was fishing among current graduate students for our opinions on the writing faculty. When asked to assess T.C. Boyle, I nervously responded, “He symbolizes for us what discipline will get you if you take everything out of you and put it on the page.” After reading The Harder They Come, these 26 years later, I can easily stand by that.