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.
email@example.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