"A Friend of the Earth;" By T. C. Boyle; Viking; 271 pp.
A HOLLOW TALE OF ECO-TERRORISM
By David Abel | Globe Staff | 1/08/2000
A novel at its base may be little more than a concoction of contrivance and curious characters. But what can set it apart from film and other vehicles is the novel's ability to seep into the underworld of human consciousness, to convey everything from the breadth of a character's condition to an omniscient understanding of relationships. In the age of movies, however, novels too often imitate and settle for the verisimilitude of the silver screen.
T. C. Boyle has never been known for delving too deep into the inner lives of his characters. But in his eighth novel, "A Friend of the Earth," the author's antic and artful style is all too transparent, and his soulless heroes, though odd and at times engagingly obstreperous, come off as being as hollow and predictable as any Hollywood creation.
This is a story of an "eco-terrorist" who believes "to be a friend of the Earth, you have to be an enemy of the people." It's a provocative and combustible premise - one that might, perhaps, seem reasonable given today's increasing deforestation, overpopulation, and extinction of animals.But the foundation for this philosophy here is as elusive as rhetoric. Boyle's disparate details are like bones without flesh: You can't feel much sympathy for his hero, Tyrone O'Shaughnessy Tierwater, because it's hard to discern what drives him. The reader learns, for instance, that Tierwater is half Jewish and half Irish-Catholic; that he once was a staid suburban dad, married to a woman who dies from a bee sting. But the details never gel, and they neither inform the narrative nor give Tierwater texture.
One problem lies in the way the story is told. The novel, which cuts back and forth from the environmentally serene 1980s and 1990s to the apocalyptic 2020s, is set mainly in the future and told through Tierwater's first-person present, a literary device more suitable to sports commentary than to rumination.
At one point in the novel, Tierwater fittingly, if uncharacteristically, arrives at a penetrating truth about himself: "I try to avoid perspective as much as possible. Perspective hurts. Live in the present, that's what I say, one step at a time, and forget nostalgia, forget history, forget the sketchy chain of loss, attrition and disappointment that got you into bed last night and out of it this morning." This is like Dostoyevsky's underground man without the requisite rage.
Perhaps to relieve the reader of the long and onerous monologue, Boyle resorts to more-traditional third-person narration when he reverts back in time. But he doesn't take advantage of it to supply the missing texture, and there's little respite as you're quickly taken back to the future, where Tierwater ekes out insights by asking himself throughout: "What am I feeling?"
The novel begins in 2025 with Tierwater describing his fall from grace, from a virile and law-breaking defender of the forests to his current bleak existence as manager of a menagerie of endangered species - hyenas, warthogs, lions, and so on - on pop star Maclovio Pulchris's estate in California.
The global environment has been ravaged. The weather switches from monsoon-like rainstorms to desert heat. Flus and other airborne viruses abound, most of the major mammalian species have died out, and if you're not wealthy, just about the only things left to eat and drink are catfish and sake.
Tierwater, or Ty, is teetering on decrepitude when a call from his former second wife and fellow eco-avenger, Andrea Knowles Cotton, takes him back to the good old days. The two haven't spoken in years, not since Tierwater's daughter, Sierra, became a martyr to their Earth Forever! environmental group, falling victim to clear-cutters in the Oregon forest. Since then, Andrea has taken the high road of peaceful protests and corporate-style lobbying campaigns; Ty went about sabotaging lumber company equipment and knocking down power lines until getting thrown in jail.
Unfortunately, the two have no chemistry. Although at one point Ty suspects Andrea of sleeping with a fellow lieutenant of Earth Forever!, the gnawing subplot has about as much impact on the overall plot as the extraneous and meaningless detail that Ty is half Jewish.
For years, T. C. Boyle has been lauded for his playful language, eccentric characters, and satirical social lens. In "A Friend of the Earth," however, the familiar style is a victim of a kind of prefab reproduction that lacks his usual pizazz and humor. If this is a lamentation for the ongoing destruction of the rain forests or the ozone layer, it's unlikely to raise consciousness. If it's a parody of what Boyle calls "eco-nuts," people in groups like Earth First! who tie themselves to trees, it's rarely funny. And it's definitely not "a story that addresses the ultimate questions of human love and the survival of the species," as the book jacket promises.
David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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