When the Killing's Done, T C Boyle, Viking Adult, 2011, 369 pp
T C Boyle's new novel opens with one of the most gripping first chapters in fiction. A young married couple, recently reunited after WWII, are sailing their newly refurbished cabin cruiser, the Beverly B, in the Santa Barbara Channel when a storm comes up and they must fight for their lives. You know it won't end well because the chapter is titled "The Wreck of the Beverly B."
Beverly Boyd, the wife, eventually washes up on Anacapa, the easternmost of the Northern Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara, CA. While she awaits rescue, she has an awful time with rats. Fast forward 60 years to Alma Boyd Takesue, National Park Service biologist, who resides in Santa Barbara. Her passion is saving the Channel Islands' endangered native creatures from invasive species such as rats and feral pigs; species introduced by human accident and design. She also happens to be Beverly Boyd's granddaughter.
Alma and her lover Tim, serious ecological workers, suffer from crowded freeways and automobile exhaust. They are vegan and health conscious, drive a Prius and abhor the overpopulation as well as the technology that threatens wild life and its habitats. Alma's orderly, tight-wound personality makes her hard to like despite her admirable aims.
Ostensibly the villain of the novel, Dave LaJoy is a local successful business owner with dreadlocks and severe anger issues. His organization, For the Protection of Animals, is adamantly opposed to the strategies spearheaded by Alma because they involve killing off hoards of rats and pigs. The FPA members demonstrate outside Alma's building and disrupt her press conferences. Dave LaJoy revels in twisted eco-terrorism raids on the islands, unaware of the irony that the rats and pigs he wants to save are ruining the natural world of the islands he loves to sail to.
As the battle between these two uncompromising characters wages on, we get a close look at one of the key dilemmas of the modern world. Which groups or organizations should be given responsibility for protecting the land, waters and wildlife? What are the correct solutions to mankind's unthinking, often greedy disturbances of ecological balance? Why the heck do some people get so emotional and dramatic about it all?
For such a socially conscious tale, the pace is brutal. The main characters are revealed in all their glorious complexity by the actions they take and the tangled backgrounds they bring to the conflict. Though he gives no easy answers and in fact tends to mock our human propensity to control everything, When the Killing's Done is also T C Boyle's paean to the uncontrollable nature of all life forms.
(When the Killing's Done is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)