Boyle in top form in California eco-thriller

Mar 14 2011 - 2:10pm

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"WHEN THE KILLING'S DONE." By T.C. Boyle. Viking. 369 pages. $26.95.

T.C. Boyle is celebrated for his richly worded tales of human folly. Yet his enduring theme is nature -- or rather, our species' troubled relationship with it.

Boyle lives near Santa Barbara, Calif., in a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house that is surrounded by wild flora and fauna. His 12th novel is arguably his strongest and most deeply felt work. "When the Killing's Done" is an eco-thriller set in Santa Barbara and in the nearby Channel Islands National Park, an uninhabited archipelago that is sometimes called America's Galapagos.

As two families fight over the islands' wildlife, humans who monkey in the natural order find themselves put on trial before the harshest judge of all.

As we learn from Boyle's typically meticulous research, the islands were in private hands for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. The largest of the islands, Santa Cruz, is three times the size of Manhattan and has hosted livestock ranches and hunting lodges. That's where a folk singer named Anise Reed spent part of her adolescence, with a mother who cooked for the rugged ranchers. Now Anise is an activist with an animal-rights group led by her boyfriend, a dreadlocked hi-fi salesman named Dave LaJoy who wants to stop the slaughter of boars descended from the hunting stock.

The culling of the pigs is the responsibility of Alma Boyd Takesue, a biologist who saw in snake-ravaged Guam how a non-native species can devastate a fragile eco-system. Alma's grandmother had been briefly shipwrecked on Anacapa Island after an accident that left her husband dead and which introduced galley rats to the nesting grounds of rare birds.

One strength of the book is how the competing points of view are rooted in personal experience and irrigated in blood. Boyle's brawny narrative shifts between perspectives, introducing tragic new details from the women's histories that recalibrate the balance of our sympathies.

The weak link in the chain of causation is Dave, who has become a vegan and animal-rights activist. On flimsy principles, he organizes protest rallies, vandalizes Alma's car and trespasses on the islands to sabotage the biologists. His romantic notions of life on the islands, where he imagined young Anise sang campfire songs -- when in fact she was battling ravens who feasted on the sheep -- precipitate some last-act catastrophes that the author shrewdly chooses not to dissect afterward.

For 30 years, Boyle has been justly praised for his vivid prose, yet here he's at the peak of his powers, emulating the five senses with cinematic clarity, modulating tone for sardonic effect and nominating the perfect word for each particle of creation.

The irony, of which Boyle is profoundly aware, is that creation takes our timid offerings and grand schemes and sweeps them all out to sea.

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