‘There’s a fine line between passion and extremism’ – When the Killing’s Done by TC Boyle

In many ways, When the Killing’s Done, TC Boyle’s 13th novel, harks back to both A Friend of the Earth and the novel many regard as his classic, The Tortilla Curtain, in that it is driven by environmental and ecological concerns. For me, however, the Boyle novel I was most reminded of by When the Killing’s Done was Talk Talk, the identity theft book of two or three years ago that pitted two adversaries one against the other and played merry havoc with the reader’s sympathies (in a really satisfying way).

As with Talk Talk, When the Killing’s Done is told, for the most part, from the point of view of two narrators: on the one hand we have Alma Bond Takesue (pronounced ‘taka-suey’), who is what you might call a passionate bureaucrat, and on the other we have Dave LaJoy, a ‘notorious environmental activist’ and the proverbial thorn in Takesue’s hide. The focus of their respective enmity are the Channel Islands that lie off the coast of California – particularly Anacapa and Santa Cruz (although the fourth island in that chain, San Miguel, is apparently the title of Boyle’s next novel).

Anacapa, we learn relatively close to the novel’s opening, is overrun by rats brought to the island as a result of shipwrecks and busy destroying many of the island’s habitually weak denizens. Takesue wants to eradicate the rats and thereby give the weaker species a chance to flourish again. Lajoy – and his compadres, a beautiful young folk singer called Anise and his surfer dude-y best bud Wilson – consider this a horror:

‘”You’re no better than executioners,” he shouts… “Nazis, that’s what you are. Kill everything, that’s your solution. Kill, kill, kill.”’

So what we have to begin with is a sort of cat and mouse game, with Takesue looking to ensure that what she considers right wins out while LaJoy and his buddies do their best to undermine her project (which, initially, involves travelling over to Anacapa in secret and sowing vitamins around like farmers sowing seeds to try and give the rats immunity to the poison Takasue plans to fly in).

The rats of Anacapa are merely the amuse bouche of When the Killing’s Done, however; when Takasue ramps up her project to exterminate the ravenous wild pigs of San Miguel, LaJoy – who has a real problem with both authority and rage – sees red. Following an interesting interlude where he has to call out a pest controller because raccoons are digging up his lovely new lawn (Boyle would never do anything as crass as making LaJoy a hypocrite but the situation really gets to the heart of the bizarre combination of passion and ignorance displayed by the leads – both at times act in a way that they believe to be correct whilst at the same time performing acts that undermine what it is they’re setting out to do), LaJoy hatches a plan to transport other new species to the island ranging from the aforementioned raccoons through rabbits to rattlesnakes. Takasue – a frailer person than LaJoy as the novel proceeds and ever so slightly an easier person to like – finds herself having to alter her views (she becomes pregnant by accident and her strongly held views on the over-population of the world are called in to check by what her body emotionally wants, much to the chagrin of her boyfriend) and this willingness to bend is maybe one of the things Boyle wants us to take away from the book. There’s a fine line between passion and extremism.  

When the Killing’s Done is a thoughtful and compelling novel, a welcome return to form after what was for us a disappointing outing with The Women. As Boyle grows older, his style seems to become ever more refined and eloquent even as his plots become fiercer– as if he has imbibed a smoky potion composed of equal parts Richard Ford and CJ Box. Like a younger more on-form John Irving, Boyle has the ability to lead you off on what you may at first consider to be an interesting digression – such as the shipwreck that opens the novel or the confrontation between an agricultural lifestyle and bureaucracy that opens Part II – only to find that Boyle is playing a long game: When the Killing’s Done has interesting points to make about the differences between generations, mothers and daughters, how gains are made, what gets lost along the way and what remains even after much else has been lost.

All told, this is a sophisticated grown-up novel, the kind of novel I feel Boyle wouldn’t have been able to write even a decade ago and proof that as the years go by he just gets better and better. There is no black and white in Boyle’s purview. There are the foibles of man, played out alongside the more genuine truths of the natural world (the last page of the book, which finds Boyle assuming an omnipresent position over a couple of critters sums this up beautifully and left this reader with a smile on his face – you can tell Boyle is having fun even as he has serious things to say), and so the book seems to say: never the twain will meet.

Any Cop?: A classic Boyle to slide along the shelf besides Drop City and Riven Rock and, if you’re new to Boyle, a great place to find out what all the fuss is about.

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