T.C. Boyle can’t quite believe the USA, and that makes him very useful. We’re on holiday with Sten and his wife Carolee. They’re on a cruise ship which promises they will ‘experience world-class indulgence’, something that becomes a grim joke later on. They leave the ship at Puerto Limón in Costa Rica to visit a nature reserve, where they and their group are robbed. Sten, an ex-Vietnam War marine, kills one of the thieves with his bare hands, thus saving the passports and fanny packs of their little band of retirees. The police and the cruise line brush this incident under the carpet, while Sten becomes a celebrity for a short time, both on board and once back home in ‘religiously quaint’ Mendocino in Northern California.
Boyle is so good at describing the improbable environments western man creates for himself, and I do mean man: a martini bar on the ship is actually made entirely of ice. And in Boyle there is always the fun of physical discomfort, his characters wrenched away from the restaurants and air-conditioning on which they depend for their very existences. Go on holiday to Central America and you have to watch ants carry your own dead skin out of your hotel room; stuff like that. But things get far more uncomfortable.
Sten and Carolee have a son, and he is a paranoid schizophrenic. Fueled by drink and drugs, Adam’s take on the world has become increasingly bizarre. His hallucinatory political radar is constantly picking up Chinese and ‘aliens’ – figures he calls ‘hostiles’. Lately he has taken to living in the woods where he’s growing opium poppies in the belief that this is self-sufficiency.
Adam is obsessed with the story of John Colter, often considered the first ‘mountain man’, famous for escaping naked from an angry party of Blackfoot Indians. He starts calling himself Colter. He acquires a girlfriend, Sara, a sort of sub-Tea Party intelligence. ‘Seatbelt laws,’ she thinks, ‘were just another contrivance of the U.S. Illegitimate Government of America the Corporate that had given up the gold standard back in 1933 and pledged its citizens as collateral so it could borrow and keep on borrowing.’ Kind of thing.
For Adam’s part, there’s a sinister ‘wheel’ always spinning in his head, and ‘He could see the smallest things, the fine leather creases at the corners of her eyes, a single translucent hair stabbing out beneath her left ear, and finer still, till he could see the microscopic mites living and f***ing and s***ting in her eyebrows, in everybody’s eyebrows, every minute of every day … Just sat there watching her mites wave their segmented legs even as he felt his own mites stirring in the valley between his eyes …’ Their lush paranoias begin to merge.
Pals of Sten’s form a vigilante group (they deny that it is one) that will attempt to get rid of the (largely Mexican) people increasingly farming marijuana in these enormous lumber company forests. In a perfect Boyle passage, the most important thing decided at the first meeting is the t-shirt logo. But then two of these silly middle-class busybodies get killed.
On some levels, perhaps too many, this is an adventure, a thriller, so it wouldn’t be fair to tell you the outcome. The final manhunt is rather dull, full of false suspense. But there’s a certain creepy point when you realize that Adam’s extremely ill view of the world is not so different from Sten’s. Adam has a wheel – Sten has a ‘switch’ in his mind which gets thrown when he can’t take it any more. Adam relies on drugs and ‘151’ rum to keep him in mountain man mode; Sten and Carolee exist on quite a large number of martinis. You begin to see that Sten is uncivilized, and that he is the source of the confusion and pain and meaninglessness in this story, and in Adam.
Adam’s parents, emotionally inept and under-educated, continually asked for help for their son. He never got any. It’s worth bearing in mind that this may be the increasing reality of mental illness in America: it comes with guns on both sides. Adam is an insane moron, and yet Boyle will convince you that there must be thousands or even hundreds of thousands of young men like him in America. Given the culture, how could there not be?
Boyle’s next novel ought to be an exploration of life at the top, among the corporatists and mad neo-con governmentarians addicted to power that the unbalanced characters in The Harder They Come paranoiacally rail against. He should write The Hillary Clinton Story. In doing so he will have sewn shut the entire rat bag that is the, or his, USA—ready to drop in the nearest giardia-infested river.
(This review first appeared in The National, May 4, 2015)