Sto­ries keep on com­ing for T.C. Boyle

Los Angeles Times - - FESTIVAL OF BOOKS - DAVID L. ULIN BOOK CRITIC david.ulin@la­times.com

T.C. Boyle has no in­ter­est in look­ing back. Yes, he’s at a mile­stone mo­ment; his new book, “The Harder They Come” (Ecco: 384 pp., $27.99), is his 25th. At 66, he’s reached emer­i­tus sta­tus at USC, where he be­gan teach­ing in 1978, and next week he will re­ceive the Robert Kirsch Award for life­time achieve­ment at the Los An­ge­les Times Book Prizes.

“I do un­der­stand that just about ev­ery­one who has ever lived on Earth has died,” Boyle says with a laugh over the phone from Wash­ing­ton, D.C., where he is on book tour. “But I’m half­way through a new novel and have writ­ten five new sto­ries. So I haven’t run out of ex­cite­ment about fic­tion yet.”

Ex­cite­ment has long been Boyle’s hall­mark, go­ing back to his first col­lec­tion, “De­scent of Man” (1979) and his de­but novel, “Wa­ter Mu­sic” (1982). In those books, he es­tab­lished the tem­plate from which he con­tin­ues to op­er­ate: to write fic­tion that is char­ac­ter-driven but also, to some ex­tent is­sues-ori­ented, at­tuned to the par­tic­u­lar lu­nacy of its times.

This is cer­tainly the case with “The Harder They Come,” a novel that ze­ros in on three cen­tral fig­ures — Sten Stensen, a sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian ex-Marine who opens the novel by killing a thief in self-de­fense while on a Costa Ri­can cruise; his son Adam, a schiz­o­phrenic who has taken to the hills of Men­do­cino in full sur­vival­ist mode; and a lib­er­tar­ian an­ar­chist named Sara who re­jects “the U.S. Il­le­git­i­mate Gov­ern­ment of Amer­ica the Cor­po­rate.” There is so­cial com­men­tary here as well as fam­ily dy­nam­ics and even a bit of par­ody.

“One of the rea­sons I’ve been able to be pro­duc­tive,” Boyle en­thuses, “is that I want to do ev­ery­thing. I love the hy­per­bolic, over­the-top, Mark Twain-style story, but I em­brace all kinds of nar­ra­tive, from the ab­surd to the real.” As an ex­am­ple, he cites his 2004 story “Chicx­u­lub,” in which a fa­ther re­flects on the dan­gers and dis­rup­tions of love and par­ent­hood, us­ing the as­ter­oid that struck Earth and killed the dinosaurs as a defin­ing metaphor for how lit­tle we can ac­tu­ally con­trol.

“The Harder They Come” is not so cos­mic in its im­pli­ca­tions; its fo­cus is on the here and now. Given Adam’s sur­vival­ist in­ten­tions and Sara’s anti-gov­ern­ment rhetoric, it’s tempt­ing to call it a po­lit­i­cal novel, but this is a la­bel Boyle re­jects.

“I don’t start with an agenda,” he says of all his writ­ing. “What higher art does is to in­vite us in and al­low us to make de­ci­sions. The novel is a se­duc­tion; a reader has to be se­duced. ‘The Tor­tilla Cur­tain’ is of­ten re­ferred to as my most po­lit­i­cal novel, but even there I was just ex­plor­ing some­thing, not push­ing a point of view. If the novel is work­ing, it puts the reader in the po­si­tion of de­ter­min­ing its mean­ing. You can find the char­ac­ters sym­pa­thetic or an­tipa­thetic. But ei­ther way, you de­cide.”

“The Tor­tilla Cur­tain” may be the most ob­vi­ous an­tecedent to “The Harder They Come.” Both nov­els deal with the ten­sion be­tween res­i­dents and out­siders in an in­su­lar yet chang­ing Cal­i­for­nia, and both ad­dress hot-but­ton top­ics (im­mi­gra­tion, sovereign rights). “The Harder They Come,” how­ever, has a spe­cific an­tecedent: the true story of Aaron Bassler, a men­tally ill man who in 2011 killed two peo­ple in Fort Bragg, Calif., and dis­ap­peared into the sur­round­ing woods. The en­su­ing five-week man­hunt cov­ered 400 square miles.

Boyle is known for work­ing his­tory and re­search into his nov­els; “Riven Rock” ap­pro­pri­ates the story of Stan­ley McCormick, the schiz­o­phrenic heir to the In­ter­na­tional Har­vester for­tune, while “The In­ner Cir­cle” ze­roes in on Al­fred Kin­sey and his in­ves­ti­ga­tions into hu­man sex­u­al­ity. Still, in this new book it’s less his­tory than prox­im­ity he seeks.

Among the novel’s most chill­ing pas­sages are those that evoke Adam’s per­spec­tive, es­pe­cially his iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with John Colter, the Lewis and Clark scout con­sid­ered to be the first moun­tain man. In­deed, as “The Harder They Come” pro­gresses, Colter’s saga be­comes a mythic coun­ter­point to Adam’s slow de­te­ri­o­ra­tion. “The trick,” Boyle ex­plains, “is to in­habit Adam’s point of view. He’s delu­sional, but we need to un­der­stand where he is com­ing from.”

Partly, that’s a func­tion of voice, of per­son­al­ity, of imag­in­ing one’s way into Adam’s lan­guage, his hu­man­ity. “Adam wants to sus­tain him­self,” Boyle sug­gests, “to live free with no mas­ter. In that sense, he’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a kind of don’t-tread-on-me strand of Amer­i­can anti-au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism, which is an ethos that still ob­tains.”

What Boyle’s de­scrib­ing is if not iden­ti­fi­ca­tion then a form of em­pa­thy, the ne­ces­sity of imag­in­ing the char­ac­ter as not just an an­tag­o­nist but also some­body’s lover, some­body’s son. “One of my clos­est friends,” he re­calls, “be­came schiz­o­phrenic when we were in our late teens, so part of what I’m chan­nel­ing comes out of that.”

More to the point, though, are the ques­tions Adam raises, ques­tions that sit at the cen­ter of the book. “I have sym­pa­thy for Adam and for Sara,” Boyle ad­mits — but at the same time he is a bomb just wait­ing to go off. We are not sur­prised when he ex­plodes into vi­o­lence; in a very real way we’ve been wait­ing for it all along.

Here too we see the mo­men­tum of the nar­ra­tive, the in­evitable out­come of the plot that Boyle has put in place. The role of the writer, as Boyle sug­gests, is to tell the story as it hap­pens, to lis­ten to the char­ac­ters, their in­ten­tions, to cre­ate them as fully as pos­si­ble on the page.

“This,” Boyle ex­plains, “is the beauty of fic­tion. We may not like th­ese char­ac­ters, but we in­habit them. I have sym­pa­thy for Adam — and for Sara — even though I ab­hor their pol­i­tics. Adam is delu­sional, but the novel doesn’t work if we don’t un­der­stand where he’s com­ing from. It evolves or­gan­i­cally out of med­i­tat­ing on Amer­i­can vi­o­lence, and a shooter turn­ing on so­ci­ety.”

Boyle will ap­pear at the Fes­ti­val of Books on April 18.

Ri­cardo DeAratanha Los An­ge­les Times

T.C. BOYLE is this year’s re­cip­i­ent of the Robert Kirsch Award for life­time achieve­ment.

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