Never one to shy away from sacred cow territory or the ruthless ways in which humans stampede it, T.C. Boyle's latest wise epic puts ecologists on a restless collision course with agitated animal rights activists. In his vintage style of tackling issues with snarling drama and incendiary humor, Boyle plots a political novel without sending the reader a preachy message, although he comes right up under it.
Boyle turns eco controversy on its head, turning back to the theme that man's desire to keep a clean footprint on the earth is a messy and dirty job, often with dire consequences. This is Boyle; bully pulpits are bent with irony, and righteousness is fraught with disobedience. Endangerment of the species brings on reckless endangerment of lives. Who has the right to dominate, to possess this planet? Humans, creatures, natural inhabitants, invasive species--several are examined, many left wanting--especially humans.
Restoration ecologist/ biologist and PhD Alma Boyd Takesue spearheads a program with the National Parks Service to exterminate invasive species on the Channel Islands of California. She argues that the infestation of rats and feral pigs are killing off the endemic Channel Island Foxes and disrupting the natural ecosystem.
Her dreadlocked nemesis, businessman Dave LaJoy, knows all about disruption. He protests every one of Alma's presentations to declare war on her efforts, and is opposed to the idea that extirpation leads to preservation. No public presentation by Alma is without LaJoy's outcry.
" `How can you talk about being civil when innocent animals are being tortured to death? Civil? I'll be civil when the killing's done and not a minute before.' "
LaJoy is the contentious head of FPA (For the Protection of Animals), a small organization viewed by ecologists as fanatical. His folksinger girlfriend, Anise Reed, is at his side on this issue, contrary to--or a result of--her childhood on a sheep farm on one of the Northern Channel Islands, Santa Cruz, which ended with a bloodlust tragedy.
Alma has the law of the federal government, if not always nature, on her side, as well as her Park Service employee boyfriend, Tim Sickafoose. LaJoy is the underdog, dependent on citizen donations and ruled by his unbridled rage. He is primed to fight with subversive acts designed to undermine Alma's program. No ecologists will keep LaJoy from his battle to save the animals. Boyle, in his typical rogue tenor, demonstrates that both sides of the fence are imbued with truth and riddled with internal contradictions.
Boyle shifts time periods to illustrate the recent history of the islands and dramatize the inextricable links between past and present, from the introduction of non-native species, to the family connections of Alma and Anise. Alma's grandmother survived a shipwreck near Anacapa while she was pregnant with Alma's mother. Boyle's portrayal of this disaster was stunning, a pinpoint event of woman overcoming the storm of nature's catastrophes with some tragic and triumphant results.
Years later, on Santa Cruz Island, Anise's mother suffered a chilling invasion of corporate corruption and a hideous attack on the sheep farm where she lived and toiled. She had worked hard to keep the hungry ravens from the ewes, their carrion cries now reverberating through the years.
The historical segments were superbly vivid and requisite to the central story, but interspersed throughout were florid narrative ambushes and excursions that slowed the central movement to a crawl. The cadence was generally barky and rough, as choppy as the Channel Island waters, as emphatic and forceful as a winter storm. I never felt that Boyd hit a rhythmic stride; it was loud and strident, with a manic refrain. But there were jewel-cut, Boyle-cut passages within that often lifted off and flew from the turgid overflow.
Although he dodged from sermonizing, it periodically read like an almanac or lecture. His voice tapped in the background, then ceded to the ripe moments of story. It was page-turning terror until the advent of excess fluctuations, like waves crashing against the wily outcroppings of jagged rock. The symmetry was lost at sea, and the climax was drowned in the fury.
However, despite these complaints, I was mentally fastened and stimulated, although the emotional resonance faded by the last hundred pages. It's a visionary story, but it lacks visual constancy except for some eye-popping flourishes.
Also, some of the characters drift off or stagnate, or are trammeled by the themes. It was their "purpose" that overrode their other characteristics. There was something missing emotionally, and I lost interest in them as individuals. But, alas, their absolute certainties are left for the reader to ponder. I am tempted to just say: Boyle was being Boyle, only more so. He is one-of-a-kind, an island of Boyle, and who am I to cross it?
The inclusion of pigs, whether capitalist or feral; the onslaught of rats, both animal and human; a nest of snakes, poisonous or colloquial; and the carrion birds circling the sky are just a few of the metaphorical joists that furnish the narrative and add dimension to the interlocking sequences. As a conservation story, the prose isn't too thrifty, but in the end, you will be glad you read it. I hesitate to say it is significant, but there you go. Boyle is a rare species. It is topical and arch, Boyle and boiling, trenchant and tough.