Every punch and thrust and gasp in the opening of T.C. Boyle’s new novel demonstrates why he’s one of the greatest storytellers in the country. Despite his prestigious awards and his university job, he still writes like a man with no presumptions on our attention. He fights for it.
“The Harder They Come” begins with a tourist bus slamming through the Costa Rican jungle. The heat, the rising irritation, the scent of danger — everything signals we’re in Boyle country. Seventy-year-old Sten Stensen is on vacation with his wife. He’s an ex-Marine, a former high school principal, one of those hard, active men who submit to retirement like a muzzled pit bull. Just as he and the other tourists limp out of the bus to start a nature walk, three men jump at them holding knives and a gun. Suddenly, Sten’s age doesn’t matter; his headache evaporates. “What he’d learned as a nineteen-year-old himself, a recruit, green as an apple, wasn’t about self-defense, it was about killing,” Boyle writes in a voice spiked with Sten’s adrenaline. “That was what he’d been trained to do and he had no choice in the matter. It was beyond reason now, autonomous, dial it up, semper fi.”
This explosive opening burns for almost 60 pages as Sten gets caught in the conflicting currents of local politics and hometown fame. His actions in the jungle are clearly in justified self-defense, but did he go too far? Does he allow himself to be used by a corrupt police force? Those deadly questions are written in blood — and then, it seems, abandoned. This first section is merely prologue for a different story.
The novel proper takes us back to California and introduces us to Sten’s son, Adam. After a stormy, narcotic adolescence, in and out of trouble and therapy, Adam now lives in the woods, marginally in control of his delusional paranoia. A violent racist, convinced that aliens are taking over the United States, he grows poppies (not for their lovely flowers) and trains to defend himself against hostiles. “They’re everywhere,” he knows. His one abiding interest is the real-life mountain man John Colter, who worked for Lewis and Clark. Although eclipsed by the discoveries of those more famous explorers, Colter’s adventures in the early 19th century sound like a cross between those of Paul Bunyan and Indiana Jones. In fact, some of this novel’s most wonderfully outlandish episodes are the tales boiling in Adam’s brain about Colter defending himself from Indian assault.
Boyle clearly likes to write about Adam, camped out on the wacky right edge of the nation’s political spectrum. We spend a lot of time in his febrile mind, frantically rehearsing for attack, cataloguing his simple insights, rubbing old slights and offenses together for heat. Sten regards Adam with bitter disappointment, but the son is clearly a fractured version of his heroic father. Both men are fueled by rage; Sten just managed to channel that energy toward forms of killing that society celebrates, while Adam spins out of control like a bent lawn-mower blade.
Between these two alienated men, Boyle places a woman named Sara, who makes a living shoeing hoofed farm animals, some of which may be more sophisticated than she is. As an amateur anarchist, she rejects the U.S. Illegitimate Government of America the Corporate and regards herself as “a sovereign citizen” who refuses to “acknowledge anybody’s illegitimate authority over her.” She is, in some ways, a stock Boyle character: the strident woman inflamed with ideology. Stopped by a police officer for not wearing a seat belt, she attempts to bore him to death by chanting, “I have no contract with you.” To her apparent surprise, this is not an effective defense, which initiates a cascade of legal complications.
How simple Sara managed to reach the age of 40 with so little common sense is one of several mysteries that Boyle leaves unexplored. What matters in these pages is that she’s the perfect lover/mother for Adam, the cast-iron mountain man whose rejection of modern life is even more radical than her own. Does it trouble her that Adam wants her to call him Colter? That he lives in a woodland house completely surrounded by a high, solid wall? Alas, the sight of him with his shirt off renders those concerns irrelevant. Divorced and horny, she pretends — for far too long — that this anti-government fanatic has relationship potential, and they carry on like actors in a tea party porno.
“The Harder They Come” is never dull, but the body of the novel never reaches the peak of its prologue and feels somehow depth-resistant, which is an odd failing given its potential. Although the influx of Mexicans raises tensions in Sten’s white town, that theme — so effectively dramatized in Boyle’s classic “The Tortilla Curtain” — remains stunted in this story. And for the first time, Boyle’s dialogue — usually inflected with the timbre of real anger — sounds TV-corny. One police officer questioning Sara actually says, “You getting smart with me? Because if you want to get smart, we can continue this down at the station.” That’s fine if he’s about to rip off his uniform at a bachelorette party, but in the midst of a statewide manhunt, clichés like that are a mood killer.
What’s more troubling, the novel’s political fiber feels thin. Sara’s slogans sound merely silly, like a high-school affectation instead of the watered-down liquor of real anarchism. Adam’s paranoia, meanwhile, is the product of mental illness, the roots of which remain obscure, despite how many chapters we spend rattling around in his potted brain. The radiation of anti-government sentiments in American culture was portrayed more effectively and far more movingly last year in Smith Henderson’s “Fourth of July Creek.”
Boyle knows exactly how to tell an exciting story. But he usually knows how to do more than that, too.
T. C. Boyle will appear at the Folger Shakespeare Library at 7:30 p.m. on Friday.
THE HARDER THEY COME
By T.C. Boyle
Ecco. 384 pp. $27.99