T.C. Boyle’s latest novel begins with not just one, but two rather exciting disasters at sea, complete with circling sharks and unpopulated islands. If only the pace were maintained! What evolves are the petty squabbles between unlikeable characters with the backdrop of animal rights and the politics of environmentalism. It’s Carl Hiaasen-esque, minus the humor and the madcap plotting. In its best moments, it recalls Annie Proulx and Ruth Ozeki novels about animals and the food industry; at its worst, a suspenseful tale that never quite pays off.
Environmentalists and scientists are pitted against a PETA-like organization in a battle to exterminate non-native rats from an island off the coast of Santa Barbara (an actual island which really did have a rat problem in the early aughts). No one wins in that confrontation, especially the rats. The biologist, Alma Boyd Takesue, leads a team to poison the rats while Dave LaJoy actively works to block her by a smear campaign and distributed vitamins to block the poison. The second part of the novel focuses on another island and yet another invasive species. “When the Killing’s Done” has no heroes, with a cold environmentalist on one side and, on the other, a racist, hate-filled man who yells at his girlfriend and sends back perfectly good wine in restaurants. Boyle does give rare moments of tenderness in this otherwise tensely plotted story to the animals, culling affection for rats and squirrels, if not humans.
Largely told from various women’s points of view, Boyle seems to struggle with the female voice, particularly a tortured teenager. “Yes, already, yes!! I mean, what do you want me to say? What do you think, I’m like three years old?” Because teenagers say “like” and “I mean” a lot, you see. Boyle shifts between generations exploring the mothers and grandmothers of several characters. These West Coast women struggle to protect their families in a land that’s completely foreign, a wilder and more unforgiving West of predators and harsh seas. A particularly vivid scene describes a morning on a sheep farm—lambs are separated from their ewes in a distraction and killed by the dozens by ravens. No lessons are learned, despite the passage of time and punishments of deed. What the reader may consider, however, is the obligation of man to intervene in nature or purposefully avoid interference. Boyle examines how animals are regarded as food, weapons, ambiance, nuisances and, above all, something to be managed and manipulated. The bleakness of this story intimates a hopelessness of an ecosystem already too polluted and unnatural to heal. (Kelly Roark)
“When the Killing’s Done”
By T.C. Boyle
Viking, 384 pages, $26.95