Practically from the start of his fiction career 35 years ago, T. Coraghessan Boyle has been an outlier in American letters – not so much its Bad Boy or Angry Young Man as its Weird Uncle, spinning tales of pot growers and communes and survivalists and man-chimpanzee bonding at a nearly Oatesian pace. Like another California-based Weird Uncle, William T. Vollmann, he’s long written about the ways mankind’s feral instincts collide with the hubristic urge to bring nature to heel. Unlike Vollmann, though, Boyle has stuck exclusively with fiction – the long list of titles in the front matter of his new novel, The Harder They Come, includes no reportage. He’s remarkably determined to use the tools of imagination alone to critique postlapsarian humanity in its untamed – and often absurd – state. This frees him to be wild himself, though in this case his free-range instinct has its imperfections.
In many ways "The Harder They Come," Boyle’s 15th novel, is an old-fashioned domestic tale, its narrative thrust fueled by the familiar stuff of good sex, bad relationship choices, and a broken family. It opens in Costa Rica, where retiree and ex-Marine Sten has stopped on a cruise with his wife, Carolee. On a group trip to the island, Sten is struck by a kind of nameless dread, one Boyle invokes by metaphorically merging man and nature: The bus they’re on “had been painted over so many times it looked as if it had grown a hide” and when they stop the driver tells the Americans, “Now you must debark.” So it’s no surprise when things go south: Robbers arrive to take the Ugly Americans’ wallets and jewelry, but Sten halts the crime by choking one of the assailants to death, “beyond reason now, autonomous, dial it up, semper fi.”
The act makes Sten a brief news celebrity back in California, an exemplar of the media’s hunger for a good vigilante tale, “the story plumbing some deep atavistic recess of the American psyche.” Wildness bringing order to wildness is a running theme of the novel, and though Sten plays a critical role in the novel’s plot, its core is his son, Adam. Like other prodigal sons in contemporary fiction, he’s off in the wilderness, but in this case more than metaphorically: He’s been escaping into the Northern California forest, modeling himself after John Colter, who joined Lewis and Clark on their travels but later became a lone-wolf mountain man. This has its appeal to Sara, a middle-aged smash-the-state radical who picks up Adam as he’s hitchhiking.
Adam wants to be called Colter, which is the first hint that the book’s antihero may be more than just figuratively schizophrenic. Boyle brilliantly captures just how much he’s snapped after Sara informs him she doesn’t have any Slayer CDs handy:
"She didn’t even know Slayer? It came to him that she lived in a different world, but then everybody lived in a different world, boxed off, dead to life, the seas turned to acid and the Chinese taking over because they were the new hostiles and if you had ten million Colters you couldn’t beat them back. 'Pantera,' he said. 'You got any Pantera?'”
What’s the line between independent and sociopathic, morally just and illegal? How wild do we get to be before we’re too wild to call ourselves fully human? Adam, in Boyle’s reckoning, is no romantic exemplar of pure freedom, particularly once his paranoia about “hostiles” turns recklessly violent. But what would a healthy balance be? Sten helps a group of locals ferret out rogue pot growers in the woods, working off knee-jerk racist assumptions that every bad actor is a Mexican gangster: “It wasn’t a vigilante group, not at all,” he tells himself once and tells a crowd later, “We are not vigilantes” – in both cases laboring to persuade himself. Sara, for her part, happily works as an animal caretaker for the various Microsoft millionaires in the region while managing a fury at the “U.S. Illegitimate Government of America the Corporate.”
This unstable mix of Chardonnay and separatism exposes a fundamental flaw in what’s otherwise a sturdy and provocative thriller: Boyle can’t quite work up a sensible justification for Sara’s attraction to Adam. For Adam, virginal and all but soaked in testosterone, Sara’s appeal is immediate and obvious; his swirling internal monologues ponder her breasts more than her virtuous independent-mindedness. But Sara, nobody’s fool, is apparently so seduced by his feral sexuality that she will endure ramblings about invading Chinese, his greeting a friend at the door naked and then brandishing an erection over dinner, and escalating violence that her take-no-crap personality wouldn’t abide. “I don’t see what you saw in him, anyway,” the friend says once it’s clear he’s bad news, “except his bod.” Sara can only lamely offer, “He could be so funny.”
This shallow characterization may wind up a small defect – "The Harder They Come" careens speedily to a smartly turned conclusion that assigns appropriate fates to Adam, his father, and his lover. But Boyle’s failure to persuasively explain Sara’s attraction to Adam is a missed opportunity to explore what seduces us into abandoning our more civilized selves – which is to say, the entire mission of the book. To be a John Colter in this day and age, Boyle suggests, is to be at least a touch mad. But what would it mean to admire such a man in this day and age, even fall for him? The answer to that question is lost in the woods.