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Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Harder They Come

I've written a lot about T.C. Boyle on this site, as he's one of my favorite writers, but usually only his short stories really get me. I've read many of his novels, but they've not been as sharp as his shorter work. I guess Drop City is my favorite of his novels.

His latest is The Harder They Come, which is sort of an examination of American violence, told through two generations, plus a throwback to the days of mountain men.

The first section is a tour de force which could stand on its own as a novella. A group of American tourists, on an excursion from a cruise ship, are headed on a bus into the rain forest of Costa Rica. Boyle humorously and mordantly sketches the misery of one man, Sten Stensen, who has humored his wife by going on this trip and his hating every minute of it--the heat, the bouncing of the bus over rough roads, the rudeness of the driver. When they get off the bus they are accosted by thieves, and Sten manages to grab one of them and kill him. He is questioned by authorities, but is let go, congratulated even.

The rest of the book takes place in Northern California, where Sten's son, Adam, is deranged and a walking time bomb. Adam likes to call himself Colter, after the real-life mountain man who was part of Lewis and Clark's expedition and the first white man to see what is now Yellowstone Park.

Adam is picked up hitchhiking by Sara, the third major character of the book, a farrier who has odd ideas about the government. She is arrested after she resists getting a ticket and her dog snaps at an officer. Adam assists her in taking back her dog from the pound, and the two enter a relationship.

Boyle, though writing in the third person, takes a particular point of view from each of these three characters. The best parts are in the view of Sten, a 70-year-old former teacher and principal who doesn't know what to do about his son. He also gets involved with a group that is trying to rid the area of Mexican marijuana growers. Sara's anti-government insanity is also rendered deftly--she's beyond Tea Party. But I found Adam's portions difficult to read. Writing from the point of view of someone mentally disturbed isn't easy, and when writing from Adam's point of view I found myself itching to get back to other parts of the story. He wasn't a sympathetic character, and his predictable end was something I couldn't wait for.

Boyle also includes some of Colter's adventures, such as "Colter's Run," which I think I've seen in movies or read about in other versions (I believe Larry McMurtry borrowed it in Lonesome Dove). Blackfeet Indians have captured Colter and stripped him naked, given him a head start, and told him to run. Colter manages to escape them. Boyle could do well to write a Western.

But of course Boyle's best talent is describing the foibles of modern society. He soars when writing passages like this: "The place was crowded, a fact that normally would have driven him up a wall. He'd spent his whole life being impatient, expecting everybody to clear out of his way, the slow drivers to pull over and the crowds, wherever they were--the movies, the ballpark, the airport--to gather some other time, some other day and hour when he wasn't there to enjoy the planet with them." Gee, not only is that good writing but it describes me to a T.

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