Animal-rights feud on island misses boat

By Steve Almond
Globe Correspondent / February 27, 2011

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Say this much for T.C. Boyle: He has a way with souls lost at sea. His sprawling new novel, “When the Killing’s Done,’’ opens with a 1946 shipwreck that leaves a woman named Beverly Boyd struggling for her life in the chilly waters off the coast of Southern California.

To Boyle aficionados, the scene will call to mind the first pages of his 1990 novel “East Is East,’’ in which a young Japanese sailor named Hiro Tanaka leaps overboard and must swim for safety. (Tanaka even gets a sly cameo in the new book.)

Beverly isn’t a sailor, though. She’s a young wife out for a pleasure cruise — two months pregnant and suddenly widowed by the wreck. She eventually washes up nude on Anacapa, the smallest of four islands that form an obscure archipelago several miles from Santa Barbara.

“When she touched herself,’’ Boyle writes, “when she brought her hands up to cover her nakedness, they were like two dead things, two fish laid out on a slab, and she fell to her knees in the dirt, hunched and shivering and looking round her with an animal’s dull calculation.’’

If you detect a hint of brutality in this tableau, you may be on to something.

“When the Killing’s Done’’ is a brilliantly researched, and ultimately exasperating exploration of human folly, specifically the cruel and selfish ways in which mankind exerts dominion over the rest of the planet’s species.

Unfortunately, it is not set on Anacapa and it does not star Beverly Boyd. Instead, the novel centers on the feud between Beverly’s granddaughter, Alma Boyd Takesue, and a man named Dave LaJoy.

Alma is a National Park Service biologist spearheading a project to rid Anacapa and neighboring Santa Cruz Island of invasive animal species. LaJoy is a self-styled animal rights advocate whose girlfriend, Anise, just happens to be the last child ever raised on Santa Cruz, where her mother worked on a sheep ranch.

Boyle has never been an author to shy from the misanthropic aspects of his characters. But LaJoy feels more like a cartoon of rage cooked up in some Fox News lab. Confronting Alma at a public meeting about her plan to poison the rats that have besieged Anacapa, he lets fly: “ ‘You’re no better than executioners,’ he shouts over whatever the man in plaid is trying to say. ‘Nazis, that’s what you are. Kill everything, that’s your solution. Kill kill kill.’ ’’

If you think LaJoy’s rhetoric is over the top, consider his lifestyle: He lives in a gated mansion, drives a massive SUV, and owns a chain of electronics stores and a yacht.

Boyle has often toed the line between characterization and caricature. With LaJoy he goes sailing over. Casting this entitled, hypocritical oaf as the poster boy of the animal rights movement feels like dirty pool.

Alma comes off as slightly more sympathetic. Still, there’s an oddly bloodless aspect to her interest in the animal world. She doesn’t seem to have much at stake besides professional pride.

There’s little to endear either character to the reader. And yet, Boyle makes us slog through page after page in which they carry out mundane tasks and think thoughts that rarely bring us any closer to their hearts. Instead, we learn what we already knew: that Boyle is a clever writer with a sharp eye for the petty frustrations of the modern world.

The action does pick up eventually, but Alma and LaJoy’s fates don’t collide so much as bump into each other occasionally.

LaJoy leads a rogue mission to Santa Cruz to sabotage Alma’s eradication campaign, which culminates in the death of one of his young acolytes, an event described in grisly detail but one that — because we don’t know the girl — barely registers as an emotional event.

Late in the book, Alma discovers she’s pregnant by her long-time boyfriend, who responds, shockingly, by snapping, “ ‘Get rid of it.’ ’’

Honestly, in the midst of such profound human trouble, I found it tough to invest much interest in the fate of rats and feral pigs.

In the end, LaJoy gets what’s coming to him. He even experiences a last-second epiphany, coming to recognize “how wrong he’s been, how you have to let the animals — the animals — decide for themselves.’’

But how, in a world utterly dominated by a single, rapacious species, might this happen?

Boyle writes wonderfully about the islands’ history and geography. I couldn’t help feeling there was a much more illuminating novel buried inside the one he chose to write, one about women against the elements.

Beverly, along with Rita, the proprietor of the doomed sheep farm, exude the strength, courage, and desperation to serve as compelling heroines. They also offer an attractively nuanced view of how humans interact with the natural world.

As it is, we’re left with LaJoy’s aggrieved histrionics and Alma’s schemes.

The novel presents a deeply distorted and reactionary view of the debate over animal rights. It pits imbecilic activists against callous bureaucrats, and virtually ignores the role of corporations and their political enablers — as well as us civilians.

It’s our lust for creature comforts, after all, that fuels the Exxons and British Petroleums of the world.

Boyle clearly intends his new novel to be both a cautionary tale and a picaresque. But it’s no funnier than the rants on talk radio. Humans aren’t just killing the rest of the animal kingdom, after all. We’re killing ourselves.

Steve Almond, whose new story collection, “God Bless America,’’ will be out in October, can be reached at sbalmond@earth

By T.C. Boyle
Viking, 369 pp., $26.95