William Faulkner had Yoknapatawpha County as a stand-in for Mississippi and Joyce Carol Oates a wedge of upstate New York as her setting of choice. So essential is a sense of place to Larry McMurtry’s writing that The New Yorker once ran a cartoon of a sign in the scrub brush: “Welcome to Texas … But Not Necessarily Larry McMurtry’s Texas.”
Does California, too, boast a present-day bard, a nongenre novelist whose depiction of the landscape, both geographic and emotional, captures this sprawling state with all of its inherent contradictions and diffuse loyalties, its cult of personality and the oft-extreme personalities that make up its cults?
Or is it even possible for a single writer to tap into California’s multi-polar gestalt, convey everything from the hippie-turned-techie ethos of Bay Area to the anti-government “State of Jefferson” sentiments up north, from the immigrant experience and those fueling its backlash down south to the environmental push and pull felt throughout its 163,696 square miles, from detailing mudslides and wildfires to earthquakes and drought?
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In novels and short stories spanning nearly 40 years, Boyle has delved into the California psyche via both plot and character study, using rapier wit and, as he’s aged, a greater depth of feeling. He’s written about immigration and its backlash in Southern California (“The Tortilla Curtain”), hippies, both neo- and original, in Sonoma (“Drop City” and short stories), the Mendocino/Humboldt pot wars (“Budding Prospects”), environmental clashes in the Channel Islands (“San Miguel” and “When the Killing’s Done”), and used natural calamities that routinely befall the state to reveal character and the fragility of life in a supposed paradise.
No less an authority than Kevin Starr, the noted California historian and state librarian emeritus, compares Boyle’s California to Updike’s rendering of Pennsylvania and John Cheever’s Connecticut.
“He has focused his realist instincts on a region with a complete mastery of that region and faith in it as a setting for significant fiction,” Starr said in an email interview. “Like these writers … Boyle has created a body of work that is of value as social history. Boyle has played an important role in keeping alive a California literary tradition anchored in place. In doing this, he keeps company with Jack London, Frank Norris, John Steinbeck and Joan Didion. His steady devotion to his craft, moreover, has shown that a nationally ranked novelist can survive and thrive in California.”
With his out-sized writerly persona and broad range of interests, Boyle, indeed, can be described as a Steinbeck with a sense of humor (and bigger vocabulary), possessing both Wallace Stegner’s ardent environmentalism – yet presented with antic, apocalyptic twists – and Didion’s cool precision in pricking pretentious personalities.
“The Harder They Come” may be Boyle’s most topical novel to date, serious without being pedantic, leavened as always with wit (though light on irony this time). Set in contemporary Fort Bragg, along the Mendocino coast, the novel appropriates the true-life news story of a mentally ill “back to the lander” who holes up amid the Douglas firs, redwoods and illegal marijuana growing sites of the woods after killing two environmental do-gooders, and leads law enforcement on a monthlong manhunt that terrifies the county.
But that’s just plot scaffolding. Boyle’s purpose is not just to tell a ripping yarn, but to delve into the minds and motives of those harboring anti-government sentiments, advocates for secession whose “State of Jefferson” placards line the interstate from Red Bluff to the Oregon border. It also deals with the unintended consequences of good intentions regarding environmentalism, the nature of violence as well as the violence of nature, what decades of lax law enforcement has wrought in the once-pristine forests of Mendocino and Humboldt counties.
Seen as a whole, though, many major characters in Boyle’s works set in California have been searchers and dreamers, rugged individualists (often self-deluded) seeking their piece of the modern gold rush, sure in their conviction and heedless to compromise and even reason.
Californians tend to dwell in extremis in Boyle’s merciless world, just like the landscape they inhabit. They often come from elsewhere, but even the natives are restless, always yearning for something better – or, at least, different. They make bad decisions, and they endure the consequences and – not so much early but definitely in the later works – find either a measure of grace or a just comeuppance.
In “The Harder They Come,” the extremes range from stubborn Sara Hoverty Jennings, who winds up in jail for not showing a police officer her license and registration because “she did not have a contract with the Republic of California,” to disturbed Adam Stensen, who muses, “There was no independence in the world, just dependence, and the animals were dying and the sky was like a sore and everything had a price tag on it,” to the righteous (and a little racist) locals fighting the “Mexican drug cartels” whose marijuana growing operations “… poisoned everything, putting out baits for rabbit, skunk, deer and bear, even poisoning the streams” to the bewildered parents of the gunman, who, in typical California fashion, gained a measure of notoriety for the wrong reasons.
Boyle’s latest foray into the Mendocino forest contrasts sharply with his 1984 novel, “Budding Prospects,” replete with comic futility of nascent marijuana growers in over their head. Yet, even this early Boyle reflects the quasi-anarchic tenor of North State residents like Felix Nasmyth, the over-educated, under-motivated protagonist:
“Society sucks … That happy hippie crap.” I knew what he was driving at. The whole hippie ethic – beads, beards, brotherhood, the community of man – it had all been bull-, a subterfuge to keep us from realizing there were no jobs, the economy was in trouble and the resources of the world going up in smoke. And we’d bought it, lived it, invented it.
One of the pleasures of reading Boyle, especially for Californians, is to absorb his knowing rants about minor irritants that afflict the state’s inhabitants, such as the quest for eternal youth that animal activist Dave LaJoy derides while watching women shopping at Macy’s on State Street in Santa Barbara in “When the Killing’s Done” (2011):
Make me over. Make me well. Make my eyes bigger and my gut smaller, my calves harder and my hair fuller. Make me beautiful and successful and above all longed for, admired loved. Sure, and how about a home entertainment center while we’re at it?
Or this riff on road rage from the short story “La Conchita,” set during a rainstorm and mudslides in Ventura County:
My fellow drivers, riding the brakes and slinging to the wheel as if it were some kind of voodoo fetish that would protect them against drunks, curves, potholes, errant coyotes and sheet metal carved into knives, went to pieces the minute the first drop hit the windshield.
Boyle, the naturalist, is at his best describing the Santa Ana winds in Los Angeles (“he felt it in the grit between his teeth, the ring of dirt in his nostrils”), the kilnlike summers in Bakersfield (“The sun hung overhead like an egg shirred in a cup”) and the drought-stricken north state (“streams fell back and left their banks exposed like toothless gums. Mud caked, dried, fragmented to dust”).
Yet, for all his critical commentary, all his jaundiced-eye-turning on the state’s faults, natural and otherwise, Boyle keeps returning, in nearly all of his recent books, to California, both as backdrop and metaphor. As his latest novel shows, he can wax poetic in appreciation of the state’s wonders:
All you saw from Fort Bragg to the north to Capurnia in the south was a continuous forest that looked as pristine as untouched as it might have been when the Indians were in possession. The ferns dripped. Banana slugs longer than your hand oozed through the leaf litter. There were patches of ground up there that hadn’t seen direct sunlight in a thousand years.
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Twitter: @SamMcManis.
“The Harder They Come” by T.C. Boyle is set in the Mendocino/Humboldt coastal region.