Lucy and Todd

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The Harder They Come — T.C. Boyle

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on May 6, 2015 at 6:41 pm

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)

The Up-Down–Barry Gifford

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on May 6, 2015 at 6:30 pm

“In ancient times,” writes Barry Gifford, “various societies, including the Irish, Chinese and Indo-European cultures, believed there were five directions: North, South, East, West and the Up-Down, which represented the navel or center.  … The center of things is where Pace decided to go.” This is the road map for The Up-Down. It’s the story of the later, but hardly declining, years of Pace Roscoe Ripley: a sizzlingly elegiac, almost nauseatingly picaresque ‘spiritual quest’ made not only tolerable but extremely entertaining by vast infusions of the violence and stupidity that characterize modern American life.

Pace is the son of Sailor Ripley and Lula Fortune, about whom Gifford has written many books – seven, in fact. To be fair, I have never read them, or heard of them, or even heard of Mr Gifford: I am, literally, a dunce as regards all this – but a happy dunce, because the world into which he plunged me is one that I have definitely been missing.

Pace is in his sixties when we encounter him in New Orleans. Having inherited a little money and property he decides to close his business, and heads north. On the train he meets the mysterious Dr Furbo, who runs a wacko clinic treating ‘caterwauling’ that sounds like something you’d hear about on Fox News, and not in a good way. The locales then range all to hell and gone, from Chicago to Wyoming to North Carolina, where Pace fathers a child with one of his tenants.

In Philadelphia he has an affair with Siempre Desalmado (‘Always Cruel’), a homeless young Hispanic woman. He falls easily into bed with almost every female in the book, which can get a little old, but these people all like each other so much you end up rooting for their love affairs. “After all,” as Gifford says of the saga of Sailor and Lula,  “it was a genuine true-love story, and there never could be too many of those.”

Pace goes back to North Carolina and is seduced by the dangerously chaotic sister of the woman who’s having his child. This now leads to serious mayhem and murder, out from under which Pace, and the novel, cannot entirely crawl. “He was truly amazed that without any bad intentions on his part, life could suddenly spin so dangerously and bizarrely out of control.” He finds love again with Perfume James, an ex-child prostitute, now a pastor (self-invented religion infests this landscape). Their romance is short-lived due to a tremendous natural disaster of the kind only America can generate. This is fiction just wild, weird and quotidian enough to be exactly like reality.

Genuinely frightening violence and sorrowful deaths play a major role in a novel which, almost inexplicably, fills you with warmth, or at least a kind of optimism. It seems at times inaccurate and paranoid, but that suits it. The Up-Down is also littered with allusions to music, art and literature; some of the little tales embedded in the story are from so far out in left field that at first you wonder what they can possibly be doing here. But then they start to make sense.

It is not so usual for the main character in a novel to die before it ends. But as you read The Up-Down you become convinced that Pace is going to perish. The frame of the story, the long accounts of the lives of Sailor and Lulu that Pace has spent years writing (constituting, one assumes, the actual novels about them by Gifford) fall into the care of Angelina, one of the last women to befriend Pace. Since Sailor and Lula are dead, Pace’s story properly ends here, too.

Late in the novel, Pace encounters in Mexico a pub bore, who stuns him with hours of jabber about people he knew in the movie business. “Hugo Gresca’s monologue, fuelled by Cinco Estrellas and Negra Modelos, Pace and Terry realized, would not cease until he collapsed or died. They never did find out how Hugo had ended up in Matamoros because just as he started to tell them about a night he and Sean Connery and [John] Huston spent in a Kabul whorehouse called The Den of Forbidden Fruit during the filming of The Man Who Would be King, a very large, purple-black man wearing a crocodile-skin vest over his bare chest, entered the bar and lifted Gresca out of his chair and without saying a word carried him away.” If life were only like that.


(This review first appeared in the Herald on April 12, 2015)