Taking a page out of Jimmy Cliff’s book, TC Boyle’s latest comes with a title implicit with threat – ‘the harder they come / the harder they fall’. And this threat resonates throughout the book, you can feel it humming in the pages between your fingers. This is Boyle firmly back in the contemporary driving seat again after his recent forays into the past (with San Miguel and The Women). And just as in When the Killing’s Done and Talk Talk, this is Boyle at his best, engaging with the world he sees about him and furiously twisting competing narratives to ensure that it is impossible to sympathise with a single point of view (this is Boyle’s great genius: his ability to inhabit the shoes of characters who are, by any stretch of the imagination, polar opposites and have his readers consider the reality of complex situations as if you were living through them).
Proceedings open on a Costa Rican cruise, Sten Stenson and his wife Carolee, an elderly couple, he in his seventies, she a little younger, going all out on the indulgence. A trip into the jungle, however, ends in tragedy, of a sort, with three young men holding up their party – and Sten stepping up, almost thoughtlessly, to wrestle the man with the gun to the ground, his compadres making like trees as Sten realises he has only gone and throttled the life out of the poor sap. Meanwhile, in California, Sarah, a youngish woman, in her 40s but passing for 30s if the light is right, is pulled over for not wearing a seatbelt – only Sarah doesn’t believe in the US Government and their phoney laws and doesn’t hold with anything passed since individuals became federated in order for that self-same corrupt government to make money off them. She winds up in a holding cell, her car impounded and her dog locked up for 30 days for nipping one of the arresting officers. Sarah can’t stand it and hatches a plan to steal her dog back. At which point our stories converge for the first time with the appearance of Adam, Sten and Carolee’s deeply troubled son, another outsider, another person deeply suspicious of America’s direction of travel. Adam hero worships a mountain man called Colter, to the extent of taking his name, and Boyle catches us up with Colter’s story too, as the novel progresses, a man able to survive on nothing but roots and berries, pragmatic, a survivor, able to withstand seemingly unendurable odds. Sarah and Adam hook up in order to free her dog, and then their relationship blossoms, although it remains strange, shacked up, as they are, in Adam’s grandma’s house in the woods, Adam taking off each morning into the forest to work on his bunker, Sarah giving him the room she thinks he needs because he’s younger and she’s older and she likes what she thinks they’re starting to have.
So we move through the book, 13 sections, all but one of whom include three chapters and each offering a different perspective: Sten, returning home from his holiday to find himself an uneasy celebrity, Sarah, trying to live her life without the interference of Big Brother, and Adam – a man we come to see has serious mental health issues (dividing the world up into aliens and hostiles) – dealing with a wheel in his head that spins faster or slower, depending on how agitated he is feeling. Of course Adam does not get on with his parents, particularly his father, and of course his father thinks time and again that washing his hands of all the trouble would help no end (even though, he knows, inside, that there is no washing your hands of a son, that connection is there until the grave). And there are tensions between Sten and Carolee (who possibly secretly blames Sten for the way Adam turned out) and wider tensions in the local community (Mexicans in the hills causing untold damage by growing drugs and damaging the environment), Sten a former school principal and as a resul a man expected to stand tall when the community calls. Boyle deftly weaves each of these strands one about the other and your sympathy alters as the perspective changes, such that the anxious act of heroism which opens the book (howsoever you view that act of heroism) sets in motion a series of events that end badly for mostly everyone concerned. Or do they? As with the climax of When the Killing’s Done (which seemed to suggest that, you know, however bad we think a thing will be, nature has a way of finding a path through it), the last few pages of The Harder They Come reinforce the idea that life goes on, which in this post-Snowden world in which everything seems to be going to hell in a handcart, is subtly reassuring (even if that reassurance only lasts a short while, and even if Boyle is throwing us a bone he doesn’t necessarily believe in himself – the world is going to hell in a handcart).
Any Cop?: The Harder They Come is ferociously good, right up there with the best novels and short stories Boyle has done. Tremendously well written, terrific plotting and characterisation, everything, frankly, we here at Bookmunch towers want from a book. A whole row of gold stars for Mr Boyle this time out.