Mother Nature and her kids reap wild oats

FRIEND OF THE EARTH By T. Coraghessan Boyle Viking 271 pp., $24.95

T. Coraghessan Boyle's new novel, "A Friend of the Earth," is a satire about radical environmentalists. The day I finished reading it, the United Nations weather agency announced they'd recorded the largest-ever hole in the ozone layer.

This seems a strange time to satirize the excesses of the environmental movement. But Boyle has always been a writer of complex sympathies.

His best and best known work, "Tortilla Curtain" (1995), transcended the easy slogans about Mexican immigration and cooked liberal hypocrisy till it was well done. His latest novel is just as spicy.

"A Friend of the Earth" follows the contentious life of Ty Tierwater, a California mall manager gone rabid eco-terrorist. The novel alternates between tales of Ty's nights as a saboteur in 1989 to his work as the zoo keeper for a rock star in 2025.

Polemists on both sides of the environmental debate will feel betrayed by the book's pinwheeling satire. The chapters from 1989 depict green fanatics in all their comic excess. But the future Boyle describes in 2025 is a nightmare of environmental destruction. Gosh, it turns out those eco-nuts were right.

Ty was a single parent "leading a life of quiet desperation" when he received an invitation to an Earth Forever! meeting. He went hoping to meet attractive women, and quickly fell in love with Andrea, an Earth Forever! administrator. But he fell even harder for their radical environmental doctrine.

Eight months later, Ty knows where the phrase "quiet desperation" comes from, and he can quote lots of other passages from "Walden," too. One night, he, his new wife Andrea, and his 13-year-old daughter dig a trench across the road in an Oregon forest. They fill it full of cement, and then stand in the hardening mixture until morning when loggers come roaring back to work.

The protest is something of a bust. No reporters witness their act of civil disobedience. The loggers - who have never seen a real-life environmentalist before - enjoy running their bulldozers at Ty and his family. The sheriff's thugs aren't particularly careful as they smash the concrete around their legs with sledgehammers.

Andrea is a savvy protester, and she knows when the jig is up. (She also knows the importance of drawing a hefty salary from her nonprofit organization.) But Ty's passion knows no bounds. He's "on the unraveling edge of the disaffected fringe." When he won't shut up, the sheriff tapes his mouth closed. When he makes threats, he's handcuffed. Even that doesn't keep him from lunging at a deputy while his feet are firmly cemented to the ground.

From that humiliating point on, despite the pragmatic instructions of his wife, Ty can't be stopped. On the way to becoming "The California Phantom," he pours sand into the engine of every bulldozer he sees and burns forests to spare them from the ax. He also loses his freedom, custody of his daughter, and finally his wife. With the easy superiority of an angry adolescent, Ty fails to see that his revenge is just as blinding as others' hypocrisy. "To be a friend of the earth," he reminds us, "you have to be an enemy of the people."

In alternate chapters from 2025, 75-year-old Ty narrates the final months of his sanctuary in the pleasure dome of pop star Maclovio Pulchris. By now, the ozone has been stripped away, most coastal cities are underwater, plagues spread fast, and the wind constantly rips off pieces of the house. With Maclovio's blessing, Ty is trying to save the earth's last few lions, hyenas, and boars in the basement. Not surprisingly, the animals aren't very cooperative.

"A Friend of the Earth" is a provocative novel, but it's more clever than profound. Boyle's absurd comedy suggests there are no easy answers to complex environmental problems, but his apocalyptic vision suggests there are no answers at all.

Also, old Ty's narration of 21st-century life sometimes drops to corny cynicism that isn't funny or wise enough: "Let's eat each other, that's what I propose - my arm tonight and yours tomorrow - because there's precious little of anything else left. Ecology. What a joke."

The book's best moments are between Ty and his daughter Sierra. Raised on protest, she moves from vegetarian to veganism and finally refuses to disturb even dirt or rocks. What happens when a radical parent loves an even more radical child? Patterned after Julia Butterfly Hill, the young woman who recently completed two years in a giant redwood tree, Sierra beats that record by another 12 months.

Ty knows Earth Forever! is using his daughter, but he can't call her down from her lonely protest in the sky. "She was lit up with the glow of all that attention," Ty says, "the cynosure of the Movement, the sacrificial virgin who was going to dwell in a tree while the rest of them went home to their TVs and microwaves, and I looked into her eyes and barely recognized her."

This quiet treetop refuge captures the poignant interaction of pride and fear inspired by watching your daughter become a martyr to your own beliefs. In the end, Boyle is more interested in human nature than Mother Nature. But for a novelist, that's probably the best way to be a friend of the earth.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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