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T. Coraghessan Boyle's 'When the Killing's Done,' an environmental novel

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In his superbly marketed blockbuster "Freedom," Jonathan Franzen lectured at us for a long time about the dire plight of the environment. Readers who had been busy in another room during the past 50 years learned from his earnest hero that the population is exploding, pollution is poisoning rivers and industries such as coal mining are destroying forests. There's probably a lobbyist in some circle of hell who might take issue with those claims, but in general, "Freedom" delivered its tirade very late in a silent spring.

Given the dismal state of our water, air and soil, how could anyone write a challenging novel about the environment? What's left to say amid this sea of carcinogens and greenhouse gases besides merely confirming the sad truths most of us already know?

Enter T. Coraghessan Boyle's terrifically exciting and unapologetically relevant "When the Killing's Done." Boyle doesn't have Franzen's marketing genius (journalists can't resist Franzen's mannered disdain for popular taste), but he demonstrates that it's possible to write an environmental novel that provokes discussion instead of merely thumping away on conventional wisdom.

His story's white-water prose propels us through 60 years of tumultuous history involving the Northern Channel Islands off the coast of Ventura, Calif. Long a master at scenes of quick-moving crisis, Boyle punctuates this plot with the best catastrophes of his career. After reading his series of disasters at sea, no one will ever sail with him again. Gripping as all that stormy drama is, though, it also emphasizes the larger theme of "When the Killing's Done" - the chaotic randomness of the natural world, a world that human beings control but must ultimately submit to.

The earliest scenes of the novel show us a shipwreck soon after World War II, from which a woman washes up on Anacapa, a tiny island colonized by thousands of rats whose ancestors washed up 100 years earlier after another ill-fated voyage. Then in the 1970s, we see a makeshift family struggling to raise sheep on nearby Santa Cruz Island. Finally, the bulk of the novel takes place in the present day, when scientists in the National Park Service are implementing plans to return the Northern Channel Islands - "the Galapagos of North America" - to their natural condition.

Boyle darts briskly through this history, filling in curious political and biological details about an archipelago that's home to a menagerie of unique fauna and flora - a spotted skunk, a dwarf fox, a deer mouse - all endangered by a few voracious, invasive species (mostly rats and pigs). But he keeps the story rooted in the exciting lives of his characters. He never lectures or hectors, and he never reduces the drama to a vaudevillian conflict between white-hatted environmentalists and mustache-twirling industrialists - the kind of bumper-sticker poses that can make environmental fiction sound so schoolmarmish. He leaves melodrama largely behind and instead animates the contentious debate of this novel in the lives of antagonists who are all ardent defenders of the natural world.

Alma Takesue is a scientist and a director of information for the National Park Service. The 33-year-old vegetarian feels guilty about taking hot showers and agrees with her boyfriend that they shouldn't bring another child into this crowded world. It's her job to explain to the news media and a skeptical public why the Park Service should spend millions of taxpayer dollars to slaughter animals in an effort to preserve nature: Nonnative rats, snakes and pigs pose a devastating threat to endemic species in the Northern Channel Islands' tightly contained ecosystems, and the way to restore the islands to their pre-human state is to poison and hunt those predators until they are gone. It's a counterintuitive argument for preserving biodiversity that involves a shocking amount of bloodshed.

That violence is exactly what offends some animal rights activists, particularly a wealthy electronics store owner, Dave LaJoy. Converted years ago by a grisly pamphlet about the horrors of industrial farming, LaJoy believes that "the loss of a single animal - a single rat - is intolerable, inhumane and just plain wrong." Boyle crawls right into the furnace of his mind. Easily irritated and quickly frustrated, LaJoy considers himself "a life-giver," but he's a bully who antagonizes the Park Service at public meetings, pokes legal sticks into its restoration plans and resorts to acts of sabotage that spin out of control like a PETA version of "Survivor."

Alma is clearly the more attractive personality here, but is her scientific confidence any less self-righteous than LaJoy's? Shouldn't she have more qualms about covering an island with poison in the name of saving it? Is the moral calculus really so clear - that thousands of animals must die gruesomely so that others she considers more authentic might thrive? Finding her car vandalized yet again by animal rights activists, Alma has a crisis of faith as she admits to herself that she's "a killer in the service of something higher, of restoration, redemption, salvation, but a killer all the same. Sadness, with its rotten edges, fills her - and weariness, weariness too, an exhaustion that saps her like the first withering assault of a winter cold." These are the qualms this novel explores in the most dramatic and provocative ways, even while it introduces us to the fascinating methods of modern ecological restoration.

Boyle doesn't quite recapture the emotional pathos of his most famous polemic novel, "The Tortilla Curtain," but "When the Killing's Done" presents a smarter, sharper vision of our environmental challenges than his doomsday novel, "A Friend of the Earth." By corralling all these pigs, rats, dwarf foxes, golden eagles and human beings into one stormy tale, he's created a raucous exploration of the clumsy role that even the best-intentioned people play in these fragile environs.

charlesr@washpost.com Charles is The Washington Post's fiction editor. He reviews books every Wednesday.

WHEN THE KILLING'S DONE

By T. Coraghessan Boyle

Viking. 369 pp. $26.95

© The Washington Post Company