Inspiration Point on Anacapa Island, part of the Channel Islands National Park, the setting for major events in When the Killing’s Done, a new novel by T. Coraghessan Boyle or as our old pal Nance, a Boyle fan, likes to call him, T. Unpronounceable Boyle.
This review is T.C. Boyle’s own fault. Every word of it, his doing.
I don’t mean that he’s responsible in the sense that what I’m about to write is a direct response to what he’s written in his newest novel, When the Killing's Done. I’m not that kind of reviewer. You know. Focused.
I don’t write about the books I’m supposedly reviewing as much as I do about what those books made me think about. Same goes for movies. It’s how I can write two whole posts on say, The Social Network, and not get around to mentioning that I liked it. If all a book or a movie makes me think about is itself and whether or not I liked it, I probably won’t write about it. I’m trying to train myself to write more formal reviews but as you can tell, it’s not happening here right now.
Hold on. I’ll try to focus.
When the Killing’s Done begins with a shipwreck:
Heavily, like a waterlogged post in a swollen river the boat shifted away from them. They’d painted her hull white to contrast with the natural wood of the cabin---a cold pure unblemished white, the white of sheets and carnations---and that whiteness shone now like the ghost image on a negative of a photograph that would never be developed. Unimpeded, the waves crashed at the windows of the cabin and then the glass was gone and the Beverly B. shifted wearily and dropped down and came back up again. The decks were below water now, only the cabin’s top showing pale against the dimness of the early morning and the spray that rode the wind like a shroud.
It’s one of the most powerful opening chapters of a novel I’ve read in a long time, terrifying, haunting, unsettlingly beautiful. But while most of its scenes are set on the water or within sight of it, When the Killing’s Done is not a tale of adventure at sea but the story of a battle of wills between a man and a woman. It’s a psychological drama with the main action taking place inside the heads of Alma Boyd Takesue, a scientist who works for the United States National Park Service, and Dave LaJoy, an animal rights activist and Alma’s self-appointed Nemesis.
Anacapa Island, one of the islands in the Channel Islands National Park off the coast of California, not too far out from Santa Barbara, has been overrun by rats who are raiding the nests of the local birds and threatening to wipe them out. The Park Service is implementing a master plan to restore the islands to a more natural state and bring back the native plants and animals that have been pushed out or to the brink of extinction by invaders. Later this will entail a controlled hunt of feral pigs, but it begins with the Park Service’s plan to exterminate the rats infesting Anacapa. The rats are descendents of rats that washed up after a shipwreck, another shipwreck, not the one that opens the novel---that one washes up Alma’s grandmother as a young woman and establishes Alma’s spiritual connection with the islands, a symbolic edge she holds over LaJoy throughout the book.
LaJoy has made it his mission to save the rats. He believes that killing any animal is wrong, but he’s especially incensed by the the plan to kill the rats. Not only is the method, a poison that causes massive internal bleeding, inhumane, but as he sees it there’s no justification for it. The rats are an introduced species. But so were the island foxes, just less recently, sixteen thousand years ago or so, but still. The rats are there because of human interference. But killing them off is just more interference. The Park Service’s plan, LaJoy says, is just another example of bureaucratic arrogance. He has a plan of his own to sabotage the Park Service’s plan.
But LaJoy is an angry, paranoid personality with a baseless grudge against the world. He takes everything personally, makes everything all about him, feels everything as containing a slight or a challenge, turns everything into a fight that he has to win and be seen to have won. He postures as a champion of wildlife but it doesn’t take him more than a paragraph or two to reveal himself as Alma’s implacable enemy in a very personal war. He wants to save the rats as a way to defeat and humiliate her. His goal is to break her spirit and destroy her career.
Alma isn’t in charge of the project, she’s head of public relations and her job is to explain the project to the public. There isn’t anything she can do to stop it, and there’s no good reason for LaJoy to have focused his animosity on her. But once upon a time she did something that for a brief but humiliating moment made him see himself as others see him. LaJoy thinks of himself as a heroic, noble, and romantic character who is doing the world a favor by demanding it live up to the high standards he sets for it. Alma shows him up as a rather commonplace sort of boor and bully, even something of a clown, and he can never forgive her for that or give up looking to get even. He has taken every chance he’s had since to embarrass her, turning up at her press conferences to challenge and heckle her and turn her audiences against her if he can.
The ocean figures prominently in When the Killing’s Done, as a fact and as a symbol and as an object of Boyle’s prose. So do animals. Birds. Eagles, bald and golden, scrub jays, burrowing owls, ravens (horribly). Flying fish. Dolphins. Sheep. Snakes. Those foxes and feral pigs. Raccoons.
Did I mention the rats?
But what the novel is mainly about, what drives the action, is LaJoy’s dangerously out of control ego and his self-righteous, monomaniacal determination to triumph over Alma. There isn’t anything overtly or unconsciously sexual in his obsession with her, by the way. He doesn’t see her as the attractive young woman she is because he doesn’t see her when he looks at her, he sees only a reflection of himself. She’s a mirror that presents him with what he has to believe is an unfair distortion of his true self. When he looks at her he’s forced to confront an idea that his ego and vanity just can’t accept. Alma stands for the possibility that LaJoy doesn’t matter, that the world doesn’t revolve around him and in fact doesn’t much care that he exists. LaJoy believes that he is force to be reckoned with, a master and commander of all he surveys. Alma represents the, to him, terrifying possibility that he commands nothing, that life, his life, is not his to direct and control.
Of course a character who is determined to exercise his will over everybody and everything is doomed to spend a book having it proved to him that life doesn’t work that way. The more LaJoy tries to control things, the more things slip from his grasp, with dangerous and deadly consequences.
Enough focusing for now. Back to drifting.
When the Killing's Done made me think about a number of things, environmentalism, activism, man and woman’s place in nature, fate, death, graduate school, mainly graduate school. And graduate school is how come this review’s Boyle’s doing.
It’s not that he wrote this book. It’s that he wrote a book. Water Music.
A hundred years ago, when I was working my way away from becoming a playwright and towards I wasn’t sure what but I was leaning towards writing fiction, or journalism, or something, I read a review of a new novel by a young writer the reviewer thought was hot stuff and the Real Thing. I believed the review and went straight to the library to check out the book. Two pages in I said to myself, “This is the kind of stuff I want to write!”
Then I said, “How do you learn to write this kind of stuff?”
Then I read the author’s biography.
“Ah ha!” I said. “You go to the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa and learn it there.”
Hey, I was a kid.
I already had a high opinion of Iowa because Kurt Vonnegut had taught at the Workshop. But knowing that Boyle had come out of there to write Water Music---and the stories in Descent of Man, which I read immediately after Water Music---clinched it for me. “I’m going to Iowa,” I said and, a couple of years later, I did.
So, it’s Boyle’s doing that I wound up in Iowa and it’s because I went to Iowa that I became the sort of writer I became and followed the path that led me to starting a blog that has turned into the kind of blog it is featuring posts about books like this.
Like I said. This review, Boyle’s fault.
Now, here’s the first thing I learned at Iowa, thanks to T.C. Boyle. “Show, don’t tell.”
Yes, I had to go all the way to Iowa to learn that.
“Show, don’t tell” was a commandment around the Workshop. One we were presumed to have learned in the Little Writers’ Sunday School, one of the less thundering ones grown-ups accept without hardly thinking about and obey, reflexively, out of habit and because they’re easy. Do not take the Lord’s name in vain. Remember his day and keep it holy. Honor they mother and father. Show, don’t tell. Commandments with lots of leeway. I don’t recall any of the writers who taught the workshops preaching the virtues of showing over telling in class. But my first semester there, the great literary critic Albert Guerard came to speak and his sermon was actually titled “Tell, don’t show.” Guerard read passages from Conrad and Faulkner in which, according to Guerard, those giants told and not showed. This was rank heresy and there was much debate around the bars where we hung out for days afterwards. I came away from the lecture thinking, “Gee, I read Pylon in ninth grade and I don’t remember that scene at all.”
I also came away thinking that I must have missed the point because the passages Guerard read seemed to show a lot. It took me a little while to work out that what Guerard meant was that the art was in the telling of what the writer was showing. He was talking about style and recommending having lots of it. To put it another way, at this time Raymond Carver was the reining Workshop god and minimalism was the preferred religion. It was a low church religion of steeple-less, white-washed, unadorned meeting houses. Guerard was there to sing the praises of cathedrals, and, yes, Raymond Carver has a collection of stories called Cathedral, no, I didn’t intend any irony.
Reading When the Killing’s Done made me wonder if Guerard had made an earlier visit to Iowa and if Boyle had gone to the lecture and taken it to heart. If he’d been inoculated against minimalism. One thing I’ve always liked about Boyle’s style, right from the opening sentence of Water Music, is that you wouldn’t call it terse. “Spare” is a reviewer’s word that guarantees I won’t read the book being reviewed. Reviewers praise an author’s “sharp, spare prose” as a coded way to let us know that the author has a limited supply of adjectives at his or her disposal and rarely gets far past the subject and predicate before slamming the brakes on a sentence with a sharp, spare period. Nobody would ever describe Boyle’s prose as spare. And in When the Killing’s Done it seems less spare than ever. There’s quite a lot of telling, not showing. And, guess what. I didn’t like that.
I liked the book. I’d better make that clear right now because in a few more sentences it’s not going to sound like I did.
But Boyle went overboard.
That’s a joke. You’ve probably guessed that boats figure prominently in When the Killing’s Done, and a lot of people literally go overboard. They go overboard literarily too, tossing up great big splashes of not-at-all spare prose.
But the up and down rhythms of his prose during scenes set on the water, with images crashing into each other, the rolls and lifts in tone and mood, the words flowing on and on in sentences not ending so much as breaking, appropriate to describing a storm at sea aren’t quite so appropriate to describing chopping vegetables or eating a ham sandwich, and I’m not being funny there.
Boyle uses up a prodigious number of words to tell us things I’m not sure we needed to be told or shown and to tell or told and shown in such detail. Then he spends pages telling us other things that if they worth that much of our attention ought to have been worth showing. If an event is worth several pages of expository flashback, they’re worth the space in the narrative to work themselves out dramatically. For instance, it’s helpful to know LaJoy owns his own business and he’s made money at it because it explains how he has the time and means to devote to his cause. But if it’s important that we know how he opened his first store and made a success of it, then we should not hear about it a reverie of memory that occurs because LaJoy’s mind is drifting during a scene Boyle needs but doesn’t want to dwell on.
Then there’s his odd approach to dialog. He resists including it. For long stretches characters think their way through scenes that you’d expect them to be talking their way through. Alma and LaJoy have a habit of holding forth in interior monologs when they could and should be sharing their thoughts with other characters who are standing right there, and this isn’t always or even usually because the subjects of their thoughts at the moment are private or because Alma and LaJoy are feeling secretive or shy or that the other characters with them wouldn’t understand or don’t need to know. It just seems to be that at this or that particular point in the writing Boyle felt like showing rather that letting them tell what’s on their minds.
As it happens, both Alma and LaJoy are types inclined to keep things to themselves, Alma because she is introspective and intellectually minded and a scientist, which is to say an observer by training, habit, and temperament, LaJoy because he’s arrogant and presumptuous and self-absorbed---he assumes that what he’s thinking is obvious to anybody who isn’t an idiot, which means that if you don’t know what he’s thinking and know that he’s right without having to be told, you must be an idiot and therefore not worth the effort and time it would take him to explain things to you. So it makes sense that there would be times when both Alma and LaJoy would keep their own counsels. It just doesn’t make sense that when they do their internal soliloquies are delivered in poetic cadences and imagistic language identical to the narrator’s. Alma and LaJoy do think alike, sometimes, and I’ll get to that, but they shouldn’t think that alike.
But there are three extended set pieces that take place on dry land, or relatively dry land, in which Boyle is content to show through a mix of dialog and an appropriately flatter, less wordy---but not spare---and more direct prose, that are as exciting, frightening, and spooky as the opening shipwreck. And the novel is crowded with interestingly and entertainingly eccentric characters, told and shown, including its two compelling leads.
Alma and LaJoy are a well-matched pair of adversaries. They have more in common than either would admit. Alma has her own streak of self-righteousness and she can be as fiercely and arrogantly judgmental as LaJoy. The difference is that when LaJoy judges someone and finds they fail to measure up it’s a moment of personal triumph for him. But for Alma the moment always engenders a degree of self-doubt. Judging others is a way of judging herself. The question for her isn’t In what way did they fail to measure up?, but Do I measure up myself to the standard I just set for them? And the answer isn’t always or even usually, Yes. LaJoy is always driven to prove himself right. Alma is open to the possibilities that she is not only wrong but in the wrong.
This makes it difficult for her to stand up to LaJoy, but it does give her the ability to recognize and learn from her mistakes and that gives her the ability to outlast him. And it’s why, despite her being intellectually detached where he is passionate, coolly pragmatic where he is idealistic, and cheerfully, almost childishly self-indulgent where he is stoic, Spartan, and (in his own eyes, at any rate) self-denying, the natural man to her material girl, she’s the one better suited to taking care of the islands and their flora and fauna. LaJoy cares more intensely, but he cares about the animals he wants to save and protect the way he cares or doesn’t care about anything, that is to the degree he sees them as extensions of himself. In When the Killing’s Done, Alma occupies a place that in another sort of novel would be occupied by a villain, the bureaucrat and cold-blooded technocrat. But it’s her ability and her willingness to see herself as, if not a villain, not necessarily a heroine that makes her a force for good.
LaJoy, to his own continual surprise, is in the opposite boat.
Another reason I wondered if Boyle had ever encountered Albert Guerard, either in person or through his reading, is that along with Faulkner and Conrad Guerard’s third example of an author who often told instead of showed was Dostoevsky, and all three of those writers built stories and novels around central characters who were as unpleasant and initially unsympathetic as Dave LaJoy.
LaJoy is in the position that ought to be occupied by a hero. His full name, David Francis LaJoy, ought to identify him as a hero. David, slayer of giants. Francis, after St Francis, friend of animals. LaJoy as in surprised by…, and …in the morning, and …to the world, although also unfortunately, but tellingly, consonant with kill…
He is a lone, little guy standing up against a giant bureaucracy, an animal lover and protector, an idealist facing off against pragmatically self-serving and, he believes, cynical and hypocritical careerists. He is smart, bold, brave, resourceful. But…
His courage is a form of affrontery, the courage of a bully so determined to show who’s right, so sure it’s him, that it doesn’t occur to him that he might be setting himself up to get his ass handed to him.
Ironically, it’s his obliviousness to his own self-destructive and self-defeating tendencies and his vain, stubborn, blockheaded refusal to even consider the possibility that he is in the wrong, ever, or accept that there are things, and people, beyond his control that earn our grudging sympathy.
We understand the source of his frustration. Life won’t let us be the heroes and heroines we would like to be either. And, all too often, no matter how hard we try to be good and do the right thing, it all turns to soot and ashes in our hands. We cast off in our snug and trim litle boats, the water smooth and the sun shining, confident and competent hands on the tiller, and suddenly, with a safe harbor in sight, the sea rises and swallows us up. The waves close over our efforts, our hopes, and our dreams, and there’s no trace of our ever having even tried to make the crossing. LaJoy isn’t a hero, but he wants so hard to be one and tries so hard that he almost succeeds in becoming a certain kind of hero, a tragic one.
Photos of Inspiration Point and the island fox courtesy of the National Park Service.