Books

T. C. Boyle
The Harder They Come

In The Harder They Come, T. C. Boyle’s brilliant 15th novel, retired principal Sten Stenson is on a luxury cruise with his wife, Carolee, in Costa Rica. Sten is 70, “six-three and two hundred twenty pounds, most of it still in the right places”, and there’s an irritability to him, a fury resting just beneath the surface of this normal, friendly American with his lovely wife and his safe community back home. Sten is also a Vietnam War veteran, with skills and a physical confidence that speak of a complicated past. 

On a nature excursion from the ship promising “all four types of monkey, as well as agoutis, sloths, peccaries, maybe even an ocelot or jaguar”, the Stensons and their easy-prey shipmates are set upon by an armed gang of young men. It’s a frightening attack. A sudden, horrific act of violence occurs.

The acts of violence in The Harder They Come might be sudden, but they’re not gratuitous or simplistic, and there are fewer than there might have been. Their roots are in philosophy and temperament and illness and racism and gullibility and systemic societal values, as well as the easier-to-explain anger and greed and poverty. The Stensons live in Mendocino, California, a “religiously quaint little tourist village”, which organises its concerned citizens into vigilante groups to look out for Mexican cartels growing drugs in nearby forests, because they think that danger must come from outsiders. It doesn’t. It takes a novelist with the skill of Boyle to combine a thoughtful, patient dissecting of American gun culture with an unputdownable read.

The Harder They Come is also the story of the Stensons’ son, Adam, and his sometime-girlfriend, farrier and right-wing theorist Sara Jennings, who is struggling with self-control and control in general. Sara is better with animals than with people, and she’s in trouble after being pulled over in her unregistered car for not wearing her seatbelt, because: 

… seatbelt laws were just another contrivance of the US Illegitimate Government of America the Corporate that had given up the gold standard back in 1933 and pledged its citizens as collateral so it could borrow and keep on borrowing. But she wasn’t a citizen of the USIGA, she was a sovereign citizen, a US national, born and raised, and she didn’t now and never would again acknowledge anybody’s illegitimate authority over her. So no, she wasn’t wearing her seatbelt. 

Sara tells herself she doesn’t approve of violence, but there’s seething anger in her smallest gesture. 

Adam Stenson is at the heart of the novel; he’s at once the most vulnerable protagonist, and the most dangerous. He only answers to the name “Colter”, after John, the early American explorer, mountain man and killer of Blackfoot Indians, and he sees the glamour and the glory in violence. He and Sara share a mutual hatred of police and authority and he keeps a survival camp in the woods, grows his own opium, is paranoid and probably schizophrenic. In Adam’s mind, there are threats everywhere and we feel his confusion and exhilaration through the rhythm of Boyle’s writing:

The hostile was fifty feet from him, red-faced, barking, everybody barking twenty-four/seven and he was tired of that, give it a break, give my ears a fucking break, and the hostile was saying ‘You pack up your crap and get out of here,’ and that was when he pulled the trigger, twice, pop-pop, and it wasn’t like I didn’t even know my finger was on the trigger because he did know and he took aim the way he had a thousand times in target practice and the two shots went home and dropped that hostile like he was a suit of clothes with nobody in it.      

Boyle writes for grown-ups. His voice is unapologetically close to his three protagonists and this allows us the privilege of seeing the world from their perspective, regardless of how appalling we find their thoughts and their actions, regardless of how uncomfortable that point of view might be. 

It’s a risk, in these sad times of likeable, identifiable characters, but Boyle knows what many writers have forgotten: that there is nothing more fascinating than the inside of another person’s mind. In showing us Sten’s actions and thoughts alongside Adam’s, he allows us to think for ourselves about the values handed down in that house, and in that country. Adam thinks that “his father had been a Marine and he’d been hard once but now he was old … still … he had gone over there and waxed gooks … and you had to give him credit for that”.

There is nothing new about the idea that violence begets violence, but Boyle is more interested in the systemic: Sten has never hit Adam. Certain people derive credit from violence while others do not. The young man who accosts the Stensons in the Costa Rican jungle is not a worthy adversary. “The weapon was just an object to him, Sten could see that in an instant, like a plate of food he was carrying from one table to another. A shoe. A book. A used CD he’d found in a bin at the record shop. He didn’t respect it. He didn’t know it.” Accordingly, Sten gives him no respect. 

When Sten returns from his eventful holiday, though, he finds himself a hero at home. Strangers buy him expensive drinks in restaurants, reporters and Hollywood producers call. Things turn out very differently for Adam. This isn’t a story about the wonders of socialised medicine or gun control or psychoanalysis. For some of his characters, the lives of specific animals are more important than those of people, but Boyle’s not judging here. A particular species of antelope is endangered. People aren’t. Boyle doesn’t have all the answers. That’s not his job, after all.

This is a novel of wonderful writing and even better thinking. Despite the strength of his earlier books and a long list of awards including the PEN/Faulkner in 1988 for World’s End, The Harder They Come might well be Boyle’s masterpiece.  LS

Bloomsbury, 400pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 6, 2015 as "T. C. Boyle, The Harder They Come". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: LS

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