Book Review: T. Coraghessan Boyle's When the Killing’s Done

A vision of inevitable ecological collapse: an encounter with America’s bestselling novelist on a recent visit to Vienna

Top Stories | Christian Cummins | June 2012

T.C. Boyle: “I’m fascinated with biology, because I just love being out of doors” (Photo: Annette Pohnert)

A Smiling Prophet of Doom

"Ask me anything you want", laughs T. Coraghessan Boyle, one of America’s most eclectic and prolific writers, "your only difficulty is going to be to get me to stop talking." We’re sitting at a white-painted round table in the shaded courtyard of the unpretentious boutique Hotel Rathaus Wein & Design in Vienna’s 7th District, and although Boyle claims to be suffering from jet lag ("I hate flying"), he seems in perky form. As he fixes me with twinkling green eyes while vigorously stirring a cup of Assam tea, it’s hard to believe the author of novels like World’s End and East is East recently turned 65. With his lean frame, narrow features, reddish hair and a propensity to lean forward and fix you in the eye, he looks like a mischievous fox.

Scientists playing God

Boyle was in Vienna to promote a drama revolving, in fact, around little foxes. His 13th and latest novel, When the Killing’s Done, has just been published in the German translation under the title Wenn das Schlachten vorbei ist. In his lightly accented Westchester, New York accent, Boyle rolls the translated title over his tongue with obvious delight, as if the harsh German syllables highlight the bitter environmental conflict he has evoked – an eco-drama that asks whether it’s ethical to shoot a common pig to save a rare fox. Set on the Californian Channel Islands, a series of ruggedly rocky outcrops visible from Boyle’s home in Santa Barbara, the plot is based on a real life controversy of biologists who attempt to save a rare dwarf fox, which is indigenous to the island but exists no-where else on Earth.

While researching the novel Boyle joined biologists tracking these foxes and describes them with childish enthusiasm as "so cute, like something straight out of a Walt Disney film." In the novel, they become threatened when humans bring pigs and rats to the islands. To maintain biodiversity, scientists plan a cull of the rats, which they plan to poison, and the pigs, which they plan to shoot. The pigs, they reason, could thrive anywhere, but the foxes can only survive on the unique eco-system of the Channel Islands. Still, the scheme comes up against fierce opposition from animal rights activists, led by an ageing dreadlocked Dave LaJoy, a misanthrope to whom every animal is sacred. "Who appointed you to play God?", he asks.

Man’s relationship with his natural environment has been central to Boyle’s work. He writes in the morning, and rambles in the California bush in the afternoons – even snow-showing in winter. He grew up running wild through nature "like Huckleberry Finn", and this love of the great outdoors has stayed with him.

He sees himself as part of an American literary tradition beginning with Henry David Thoreau, who turned his two years living in a cabin in the woods into the introspective classic of Transcendentalist philosophy, Walden, in 1854. Ernest Hemingway’s short stories, which many consider his best work, rely on his treks through the forests and his fishing in the pristine lakes of Michigan. "I guess I could be called a green writer from the beginning, because I am fascinated with biology, ecology, island bio-ecology and all of those things", says Boyle, "because I just love being out of doors."

Battle for dwindling resources

The biological battle between indigenous and invasive species has a particular fascination for Boyle, who sees the battle for dwindling resources as the cause of "every war and every cataclysm" on the planet. His 1995 novel The Tortilla Curtain, a deeply empathic story of the plight of downtrodden economic migrants from Mexico, also features a character called Delaney Mossbacher, an East Coast-born nature writer.

Delaney lives in a closed community in the hills above Los Angeles and, like Boyle, gains inspiration from the changing fauna and flora. Brought up on values of liberal humanism, he believes himself to be tolerant. But after being victim of a car theft and a graffiti campaign, and seeing his home (and beloved nature) threatened by a wild-fire started by illegal immigrants, he is reduced to a gun-toting racist seeing the economic migrants as an invasive species, as something that has to be beaten away. The base animal instinct returns.

This tribalist thinking is absurd, Boyle pointed out, particularly in the U.S., a land of immigrants where in the 19th century, blond-haired, blue-eyed Swedish immigrants were the target of prejudice and hatred. But the drama remains relevant in 2012: "We are an animal species, and we are all one", Boyle said. "We’ve had separate races and ethnic identities because the world was big. Now it is much smaller and much more mixed. You can put up a wall 6,000 feet high, and it’s not going to keep people out. Like any other animal species we will go where the resources are."

Boyle’s work offers few solutions, and despite his upbeat persona, his world-view is profoundly pessimistic. "I like to deal with an issue by dramatising it and broadening the debate. I’m not writing a polemic, I’m just trying to understand things and then give them to you." With seven billion people now sharing the planet, he fears we are headed for an "ecological catastrophe for our species", rushing towards the sort of bleak future imagined by fellow author Cormac McCarthy in his futuristic 2006 novel The Road, set in an ash-filled land devoid of living things: "Cormac got it right."

Back in 2000, when it was still largely a non-issue in the U.S., Boyle published his own sci-fi drama about the terrifying impact of global warming called A Friend of the Earth. There is a sense of inevitability in his vision of ecological collapse, as he points out that you don’t have to be a cynical oil-baron to be an enemy of the environment. It’s not just the one per cent, it’s the 99 percent too.

"Just to be born in our society is to be a criminal in terms of the environment", he said. "We do tremendous damage to it with everything we do, from eating in a restaurant to driving our cars. But we have to decide where to draw the line. What are we going to do? All live like monks? It’s absurd!"

Again the mischievous laugh, again the energetic stirring of his tea as he predicts our impending doom. I point out that he doesn’t exactly fit the cliché of the angst-ridden prophet or even, with his self-professed love of writing, the tortured artist squeezing words out like blood from his soul.

"I’d like to be the tortured artist," he laughs, "that would be cool. But life is torture enough!"

When the Killing’s Done

by T. Coraghessan Boyle

Bloomsbury U.K. (March 2012)

pp. 384

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