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T.C. Boyle On Our Fate Versus The Great Outdoors

In nine collections of short stories and 12 novels, T.C. Boyle has portrayed the American experience in all its contradictions, from the wacky pioneering health food movement led by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of the corn flake and peanut butter (in his 1993 novel The Road to Wellville), to the disorderly love life of fastidious architect Frank Lloyd Wright (The Women, 2003).

Boyle's 13th novel, a multigenerational saga of social conflict and family tragedy, is set in Santa Barbara (where the writer has lived for many years) and the nearby Channel Islands. Boyle's play-by-play skewering of a contemporary environmental standoff modeled on real life events is as dramatic and richly textured as his best work.

After drawing us into his story with intense and sensual descriptions of life on these isolated islands (called North America's "Galapagos" because they are home to 150 or so unique species, including the miniature wild fox and dozens of exotic birds), Boyle drops us into a cabin cruiser floundering in "the furious cold upwelling waters of the Santa Barbara Channel." The year is 1946; and the motorboat's lone survivor is two months pregnant.

More than a half-century later, Alma Boyd Takesue, the survivor's even-tempered granddaughter, is a National Park Service biologist embroiled in an environmental controversy and conundrum — the killing off of a predator species in order to preserve an endangered one. Alma is tasked with explaining to the public the plan to clear rats and feral pigs from the Channels. The goal is "restoration, not preservation," she explains to a gathering of Santa Barbara residents.

Her leading opponent is Dave LaJoy, a volatile FPA (For the Protection of Animals) activist with deep pockets and mud-colored dreadlocks, whose rage, Boyle writes, "sweeps upon him like a rogue wave on a flat sea." LaJoy believes that killing any animal is "intolerable, inhumane and just plain wrong. ... I'll be civil when the killing stops," he shouts at Alma.

LaJoy's battle escalates from hectoring to guerrilla tactics, and Boyle builds his novel's suspense as these forays — and the fierce tensions between Alma and LaJoy — grow increasingly hostile.

Against a backdrop of untamed nature and within a pulse-pounding exploration of very urgent environmental issues, When the Killing's Done manages to illuminate Boyle's favorite human themes: the irrationality of our behavior, and the folly of social and political divides. In his carefully wrought passages about the fragile ecosystems of these islands and the ocean that surrounds them, Boyle reminds us that human enterprise — even when it isn't fraught with calamity — pales in the face of nature's power. In Boyle's universe, capricious winds, treacherous seas, mudslides, obscuring fog and harsh terrain will not only upend the efforts and fates of even the most right-minded women and men, but those stormy states might well describe the human condition itself.

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Jane Ciabattari
Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short-story collections Stealing The Fire and California Tales. Her reviews, interviews, and cultural reporting have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Daily Beast, the Paris Review, the Boston Globe, The Guardian, Bookforum, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and among others. She is a current vice president/online and former president of the National Book Critics Circle.