Virtue for Spite
By Jonathan StevensonJuly 8, 2015
The Harder They Come by T. C. Boyle
T.C. BOYLE is a sneaky-good novelist. He writes lively, kinetic books that give full vent to the points of view of even the most dubious characters, in line with Saul Bellow’s observation that the novel of ideas “becomes art when the views most opposite to the author’s own are allowed to exist in full strength.” Indeed, Boyle often seems to have no clear stand-in — there might be no reasonably exemplary character against whom to compare the damaged souls who actuate the story — so that as the denouement begins, you start to think that he will obstinately decline to offer resolution. Yet Boyle is a literary closer par excellence. By the last page, he always crystallizes that story’s significance.
In The Harder They Come, his 15th novel and 25th book overall, Boyle takes on the toxic kernel of the American far right — timely, given the country’s present political polarization and the impending election year. Boyle calls attention to the durable saliency of the libertarian fringe, from events such as the Ruby Ridge standoff, the Waco shootout, the Oklahoma City bombing, and other recent acts of domestic terrorism. Other novelists — Philipp Meyer in The Son and Robert Coover in The Brunist Day of Wrath — have dissected these phenomena. Both are fine novels, but the maw that separates them exposes the literary need for an inventive realist treatment. Enter Boyle.
The Harder They Come starts with something of a diversion. Seventy-year-old retiree Sten Stensen and his wife Carolee are vacationing in Costa Rica. During a bus jaunt with other American tourists from their cruise ship, the driver and his accomplices set them up for armed robbery in a remote village. After he is shoved around by Latinos half his size, Sten, a decorated Vietnam veteran, decides enough is enough and strangles the one with the gun, using a chokehold he learned in the Marine Corps back in the day. Boyle initially presents Sten as an irascible old-school tough guy, and he wins the awe of his fellow vacationers, the tacit appreciation of the Costa Rican police — who acknowledge that his victim’s “death was no loss to the world” — and, provisionally, the reader’s admiration. In the incident’s aftermath, Sten, rather than using the redoubt of safety to reflect on the gravity of taking a life, plows drunkenly through his anger over being inconvenienced to revel in his menace and technology-fueled notoriety:
It might have been his imagination, but as they walked down the corridor to the elevator he couldn’t help feeling people were making way for him, eyes meeting his and dropping to the floor, conversations suddenly hushed, men unconsciously hugging their wives closer as if he were some feral beast, and what was that all about? Had the captain made an announcement? If not, he was going to have to at some point, the cruise delayed here in port for another day, at least a day, and of course everybody had cellphones, BlackBerries, iPads, all rumor consolidated into news, and all news instantaneous. They knew. The whole ship knew.
The potency Sten has acquired as an adulated killer gets the better of him. The police confront him with a suspect he knows he has never seen, but when the man spits on Sten’s shirt, rage takes possession of him. Sten falsely identifies the man as a perpetrator of the crime. Set up as an exemplar of American grit, Sten is abruptly knocked down in that instant. He chooses to dehumanize his enemy, as you now suspect he might have done in Vietnam. Spite replaces rectitude as the prime national virtue.
What Sten did on his summer vacation sets the tone for the remainder of the book: Boyle’s characters instinctively choose extremism over moderation, indulging impulse over prudence. If there is some brake on irresponsible behavior, it usually takes the form of another vice. Boyle resumes the narrative in Northern California, home of the Stensen family, with Sara Hovarty Jennings, a comely self-employed horse shoe-er in her early 40s whose political views would make Ron Paul blush. Boyle encapsulates them early on:
Seatbelt laws were just another contrivance of the U.S. Illegitimate Government of America the Corporate that had given up the gold standard back in 1933 and pledged its citizens as collateral so it could borrow and keep on borrowing. But she wasn’t a citizen of the U.S.I.G.A., she was a sovereign citizen, a U.S. national, born and raised, and she didn’t now and never would again acknowledge anybody’s illegitimate authority over her. So no, she wasn’t wearing her seatbelt. And she didn’t have legal plates, or the sort of plates the republic of California deemed legal, that is (the sticker that had come with the ones on the car was long since expired because she wasn’t about to play that game), and if she was traveling on the public roads in her own personal property, it was her business and nobody else’s.
Like many of Boyle’s nutshell accounts, this one is on-the-nose and archly overwritten. Sara, you infer from his description, has accepted far-right dogma hook, line, and sinker; she feels aggrieved toward the state and has refused to recognize any benefits it may confer on a “sovereign citizen.” Sara’s twisted demons seem to parachute into the story from nowhere, though the mechanisms of their reinforcement are crucial to the storytelling. The source of her petulant isolation is opaque, like that of the American exceptionalism to which it seems related. Presently, the police pull Sara over, arrest, and jail her after she refuses to provide documentation and her dog Kutya attacks them. They stick Kutya in the pound. After a friend bails her out, Sara picks up the Stensens’ son Adam hitch-hiking. Although he does not appear until a quarter-way through the novel, Adam Stensen is the novel’s central character: a warped embodiment of the rugged individualist. He and Sara, though she is perhaps a decade older, bond over great sex, booze (he has a taste for 151-proof rum), and springing Kutya from the pound.
Boyle is in the habit of taking real events and imagining their deep context. The Women (2009), for instance, explored the serial monogamy of Frank Lloyd Wright. The Harder They Come is conjured from two unrelated news stories — one involving an elderly vacationer attacked in Central America, the other a mentally ill lone-wolf gunman who killed two strangers in Northern California and spurred a massive manhunt. The opening chapter on Sten’s fatal confrontation with the Costa Rican thug is a brilliantly nuanced set piece on the uneasy virtue of American impatience and imperiousness (Harper’s ran the chapter as a short story entitled “The Slant of the Sun”), which with the subsequent three chapters becomes a veritable novella on the distortion of those qualities into cruel, reactionary xenophobia. The novel consists of 13 multi-chapter parts, each one of which could stand nicely on its own.
Boyle is drawn to big American social issues like immigration, which he covered in The Tortilla Curtain (1995), and the environment, plumbed in A Friend of the Earth (2000) and When the Killing’s Done (2011). Self-sufficiency also preoccupies him, especially in Drop City (2003), his send-up of communitarianism and survivalism, and in San Miguel (2012), his multi-generational novel about self-imposed isolation. These issues figure in the new novel, too. Adam consecrates his far-right views and affection for firearms through the myth of John Colter, which Boyle intermittently — sometimes clunkily — unspools. Colter was a fiercely independent member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, a man whose guile and guts famously enabled him to evade the Blackfeet’s effort to chase him down and skin him alive. From the outset of their relationship, Adam insists that Sara call him “Colter,” which to Adam’s mind enshrines his own defiance.
In a manner that vaguely recalls Cormac McCarthy’s grisly Child of God, Adam descends into psychosis spurred by his parents’ sale of his grandmother’s cabin, where they have allowed him to live as a survivalist recluse, and conflates his persona with Colter’s. Meanwhile, Sten wrestles with the now unwanted attention that his lethal celebrity entails, displacing his anger onto Mexicans he suspects of growing marijuana locally. “This was America, this was his turf, where he’d been born and raised, not some shithole in the jungle somewhere.” If Adam is a right-wing wackjob, Sten is just a garden-variety redneck. However, it is Sten who gloms the street-cred by killing people, first in Vietnam, then in Costa Rica. The upshot is that Adam has some catching up to do.
That he does. The primary problem with the book is that, over its full course, Boyle freights both Adam and Sara with characterizations that are so relentlessly cartoonish and with dialogue so gratingly pulpy that even these troglodytes seem to get hung out to dry. From Sara’s point of view,
there was talk on the radio, but it was mainly left-wing Communist crap — NPR, and how was it their signal was stronger than anyone else’s? — and even that faded out once she started down the grade and hit the first few switchbacks, so she popped in a CD instead. She favored country, but the old stuff, the classic stuff, Loretta and Merle and Hank, because all the new singers with their custom-made boots and blow-dried hair were just pale imitators, anyway.
Adam’s response to the impingement of “aliens” on his territory is “‘Nuke ’em. Nuke ’em before they nuke us. … Or hack all our computers and send us back to the Stone Age. No money, no food, no electricity, no nothing.’” She does not get much more complicated than that, and he does not get any brainier.
Although they share radical notions, Sara is a weary ideologue, while Adam’s energy is boundless. They don’t quite make sense as a couple, even by the end of the novel. The lovers’ parodic cast and romantic incongruity are not fatal to literary realism — there are no doubt real people who are just as ridiculous as Adam and Sara, and surely actual relationships just as inadvisable — and Boyle’s indulgence in the snideness and swagger that he showed in more straightforwardly satirical novels like East is East (1990) and Drop City can be a guilty pleasure for the reader. In offering up caricatures, however, the author does miss an opportunity to drill down more deeply into the American right-wing syndrome.
Yet Boyle is nonetheless, as previously noted, a strong finisher. When, in his final moments, Adam has stopped talking and is left only to action, he is granted some of the novel’s most trenchant and earnest prose: “There was no way out and it didn’t really matter. You just had to be as hard as hard and make your own legend and let the chips fall where they may.” The fact is, despite his knowing reductiveness with respect to losers and miscreants, Boyle cares about everyone equally. At the end of his penetrating 2012 short story “Sic Transit,” which concerns a restless man’s obsessive curiosity about a dead neighbor, he offers a remarkably sincere soliloquy as to its reasons:
After all, you might ask, who was he, … and why should anyone care? The answer is simple: he was you, he was me, he was any of us, and his life was important, all-important, the only life anybody ever lived, and when his eyes closed for the final time, the last half-eaten carton of noodles slipping from his hand, we all disappeared, all of us, and every creature alive too, and the earth and the light of the sun and all the grace of our collective being.
Sten, in glimpsing that leveling grace, elevates the novel. In the end, he is burdened with his son’s murderousness as well as his own moral stumble on the cruise ship, yet he remains a nominally lawful man. He stays in Northern California and faces opprobrium while managing his own grief. He finds Sara’s valedictory rant against government stale and futile. He plays golf, and the ball he hits finds nothing but blue sky. Sten holds the line between mainstream America and Adam’s baleful nihilism. Boyle has forged a progression from cheerfully chronicling countercultural zaniness, as in his second novel Budding Prospects (1984), to sardonically limning the demise of hedonistic 1960s utopianism in Drop City, to soberly charting the undertow of the “hard, isolate, stoic” American soul that D.H. Lawrence, as quoted in the epigraph of The Harder They Come, identified. Ultimately, Boyle seems to suggest, the gruff, unyielding provincial who values order above all may offer more hope than despair against the threat of rampant destruction that our history perpetually brandishes.
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