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.