Monday, October 12, 2015

No One Writes of the Disaffected Male Like T. C. Boyle

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One of the best book discussions I ever led was at the Bonita Springs Library, close to twenty years ago. The book was "The Tortilla Curtain" by T. Coraghessan Boyle. In brief, it was about the wealthy, self-satisfied liberal families who lived in the hills of L.A. and their dismay at the homeless immigrants building camps in the ravines by the side of the roads that led to those gated communities.  At the time, Bonita was transitioning from a poor man's Naples to a haven for upscale gated communities. The only time folks wanted to see our Hispanic residents was when they were grooming the golf courses.

That remarkably timely book encouraged a wonderful exchange of opinions and I'm shocked at myself for not having read more of Boyle's trenchant novels since then. I decided to listen to his latest, "The Harder They Come." Once again Boyle shows his eerie talent for getting inside the heads of his characters. What he describes may not be pretty but it is the raw, unfiltered truth. He is the master of the angry white male.

Recently retired, Swen Swenson and his wife Carolee live in northern California.  She volunteers her time at a wildlife sanctuary. He's still trying to adapt, but he drives a Prius to the golf course so he feels he's doing his bit for the environment. Sven, a Vietnam Veteran, was principal of the local high school - a big man in town - and the greatest disappointment of his life,  the one he is helpless to change, is his son Adam.

It was pretty clear to Swen and Carolee that, by the time Adam hit fifteen, there was more wrong with him than the usual teen-age angst. Brilliant in certain areas but asocial and inward, Adam left his parents' home to live with his grandmother in her house out in the mountains. After she died he stayed on,   growing and harvesting poppies in the woods, building a cement wall around the house to discourage intruders, stockpiling weapons, and studying the books of John Colter, the mountain man who aided Lewis and Clark.

A survivalist, Adam lives off the grid, honing his skills for the revolution that he's sure will come. How appropriate that he should meet Sara, a farrier who works for cash only, eschews the government's system of laws, and often finds herself on the wrong side of them. They are sexually attracted to each other though I think she sees in Adam a feral animal that she hopes to domesticate. He is incapable of any relationship and, though he craves the smells from her cooking and the feel of her in bed, he is always gone before morning light, out into the woods where he answers to no one but nature.

This is a novel filled with violence. When one wonders why Adam is so angry at the world, one must look no further than the first chapter, and listen to Swen's stream of consciousness observations as he and Carolee take a day excursion from their cruise ship through the rainforests of Costa Rica. His hatred for "foreigners" is visceral and it's to Boyle's credit that the reader can feel it in every word on the page. The language lends itself perfectly to an audio recording.

Back in the states Swen and his buddies volunteer to patrol the mountains outside of town where it's believed that Central American immigrants grow and harvest dope, trashing the forests for tourists and ruining local business. But when one of their  own is killed, town meetings are called, posses form, and "by god they're gonna drive these damn immigrants out of their woods if it's the last thing they do."

But, what if the sins of the father are visited upon their sons? If you want to understand the mindset of a person who might vote for Donald Trump, look no further than this devastating, insightful novel about what happens when the American dream fails to live up to our expectations.

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