About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

#63: When the Killing's Done

When the Killing's Done, by T. Coraghessan Boyle (New York: Viking, 2011)

"Principally set on the wild and sparsely inhabited Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara -- the Galapagos of North America -- T. C. Boyle's powerful new novel combines action-packed adventure with a socially conscious, richly humane tale regarding the dominion we attempt to exert, for better or worse, over the natural world."

Alma Boyd Takesue is a National Park Service biologist who is spearheading the efforts to save the islands' endangered native creatures from invasive species such as rats and feral pigs, which, in her view, must be eliminated. Her antagonist, Dave LaJoy, is a muscular, dredlocked local businessman who, along with his inamorata, the folk singer Anise Reed, is fiercely opposed to the killing of any species whatsoever, and will go to any lengths to subvert the plans of Alma and her colleagues.

"Their confrontation plays out in a series of escalating scenes in which these characters violently confront one another, contemplate acts of sabotage, court danger and tempt the awesome destructive power of nature itself. Boyle deepens his story by going back in time to relate the harrowing tale of Alma's grandmother, Beverly, who was the sole survivor of a 1946 shipwreck in the channel, as well as the tragic story of Anise's mother, Rita, who in the late 1970s lived and worked on a sheep ranch on Santa Cruz Island.

"In dramatizing this collision between protectors of the environment and animal rights activists, Boyle is, in his characteristic fashion, examining one of the essential questions of our time: who has the right of possession of the land, the waters, the very lives and breath and souls of all the creatures who share this planet with us? When the Killing's Done offers no transparent answers, but like The Tortilla Curtain, Boyle's classic take on illegal immigration, it will touch you deeply and put you in the position to decide."

Opening Line:
"Picture her there in the pinched little galley where you could barely stand up without cracking your head, her right hand raw and stinging still from the scald of the coffee she'd dutifully -- and foolishly -- tried to make so they could have something to keep them going, a good sport, always a good sport, though she'd woken up vomiting in her berth not half an hour ago."

My Take:
Liked it a lot -- I'm usually a big Boyle fan, ever since The Tortilla Curtain, and this one didn't disappoint. Complex, interesting characters; decent story line; no pretty red bow to wrap everything up at the end.

My main critique (and perhaps this is with the dust jacket writer and not with Boyle himself) is that there wasn't quite as much conflict or tension in the plot as I might have hoped for. As this Onion A.V. Club review suggests, the author's portrayal of animal rights activist Dave LaJoy isn't exactly balanced or sympathetic; he owns a chain of high-end electronics stores he's never seen actually managing or working in, holds everyone except maybe his trophy girlfriend Anise in open contempt, and (in a recalled scene of his one and only long-ago date with Alma) has no qualms about ordering bottle after bottle of a restaurant's priciest wine, only to proclaim each one unacceptable after it's opened and send it back. Nice guy. He is fun to roll your eyes at, though, and does indeed eventually get a suitably dramatic comeuppance. (As Barbara Kingsolver's New York Times review reminds us, "Boyle has elsewhere dispatched characters by the likes of meteor strike and bear consumption.")

Alma's character is far more subtly rendered, though I still might have preferred to hear a bit more about how she herself thinks and feels rather than just who her parents and grandmother were. And while it's not really a tidy red bow, or even close, her own resolution seems a wee bit too clean -- perfunctory, perhaps.

Still, an excellent book, and one I'd highly recommend to others.

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