T.C. Boyle prefaced Wild Child, his 2010 collection of short stories, with a short quote from the Henry David Thoreau essay “Walking” that reads: “In Wildness is the preservation of the world.” This quote wonderfully describes not only the tigers, feral children, cloned dogs, rats, and pastoral moments found in that collection, but it spoke also to the wildness of the stories’ characters: the wildness in all of us.
For his new novel When the Killing’s Done, Boyle could have done worse than return to Thoreau’s essay and quote the first lines of “Walking” for an epigraph, “I wish to speak a word for nature, for absolute Freedom and Wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and Culture merely civil—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature…” Boyle’s new, multi-perspective novel deals with the topical problem of invasive species that are destroying the habitat of California’s Channel Islands. But, as is often the case in Boyle’s novels and stories, the truly invasive species aren’t the feral pigs or rats that humans loosed upon the islands, but the humans themselves.
At the heart of the novel is a conflict between two strong characters who essentially want the same thing, to protect the animals and natural environments off the coast of California. However, they go about achieving their ends through wildly different means. Alma Boyd Takesue is a conservationist working for the National Parks Service, spearheading the campaign to destroy the invasive rat and the feral pig populations on the islands and return the pristine habitat that existed before human interference. She is a character defined by a “self control” that borders on self destruction. Ultimately she understands that she will be known as a pig and rat killer, but she also understands that killing “will be in the service of something higher, of restoration, redemption, salvation, but a killer all the same.” Alma has a personal stake in the Channel Islands that drives her. The story of her grandmother’s near-death at sea begins the novel with a wonderful and tense set-piece of the 1946 shipwreck and her week-long survival on Anacapa Island, which by that time had become a colony of rats. The terrifying description of the shipwreck and the stark setting of the islands create an immediate tension between the wild islands across the channel from civilization—Montecito and Santa Barbara—where much of the novel’s action takes place.
Dave LaJoy, the antagonist and founder of the animal rights activist group For the Protection of Animals, has less of a personal stake in the Channel Islands—though the novella-length section detailing his girlfriend Anise’s story of growing up on a sheep ranch on Santa Cruz Island is worth the price of admission alone. LaJoy’s fight for animal rights is born less out of a drive to save animals than “the surge of triumph and power” he feels when he fights against those who kill animals. Throughout the course of the novel, it becomes clear that LaJoy hates people more than he loves animals and his campaign to save feral pigs and rats is really a campaign against Alma Boyd Takesue. LaJoy’s misanthropy and rage drive much of the action of the novel, and his hypocritical rants and destructive attempts to save the animals contain many of the critiques that Boyle levels against a culture filled with the best of intentions to preserve a precarious natural environment, but only when convenient and on our own terms. LaJoy’s character is at the receiving end of many of the author’s critiques, but he is not alone, not by a long shot.
As is often the case in a T.C. Boyle novel, tragedy strikes his characters regardless of their intentions, and the writing is at its best when things are at their worst because those are the moments when Boyle describes the “hard calculus that measures the fate of the animals against human suffering, human life.”
In “Wild Child,” the anchor story of his 2010 collection, Boyle fictionalized the story of the feral boy from Aveyron, France in order to ask Rousseau’s famous question “was society a corrupting influence, rather than the foundation of all things right and good?” That question is no longer relevant in When the Killing’s Done and Boyle admits as much by prefacing his new book with an older, and even more elemental quote from Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it.” In the pages of When the Killing’s Done, T.C. Boyle makes it clear that the earth has not been subdued even though our dominance has, at times, been convincing.When the Killing’s Done T.C. Boyle Viking – February 2011 369 pages / $26.95