A Friend of the Earth
By T.C. Boyle
Penguin Canada, 271 pages
Half-way through T. Coraghessan Boyle’s A Friend of the Earth, a dark comedy about environmental failure set in 2025, one of the planet’s few remaining hyenas escapes from a rock star’s menagerie.
Widespread storms and floods have forced Maclovio Pulchris, a character clearly based on Michael Jackson, to keep his zoo inside his California mansion, but one day he absent-mindedly opens a door, and the beast escapes out into the foul weather.
A hyena set loose in the night — that’s an apt metaphor for Boyle’s own writing. The author of nine novels and five collections of short stories, Boyle specializes in a form of savage humour that sets the rest of the literary canon quivering with fear. The California writer has long been an erudite anarchist, taking particular pleasure in comedic set-ups and slapstick in such early novels as Budding Prospects, his idyll about a hapless, would-be pot grower in rural California.
But of late, Boyle’s satire has become double-edged and vicious, eliciting uncomfortable laughs from readers. An increasingly apocalyptic vision has crept into his writing. It began with The Tortilla Curtain, a wrenching look at immigration in late-20th- century California, and now continues with A Friend of the Earth.
The novel finds 75-year-old Tyrone O’Shaughnessy Tierwater, a former eco-radical, looking back on his life. In an age of global warming in which Winnipeg has become a sunny resort and California is wracked with endless days of heavy rain, Tierwater has found himself a sinecure caring for the zoo of endangered animals that the rock star has pulled together and keeps at his mouldering mansion.
Things are going smoothly enough until Tierwater’s ex-wife, Andrea, shows up at the mansion’s door. She has brought with her someone hoping to write the biography of Tierwater’s dead daughter, Sierra, a tree-sitter who later became a martyr to the cause.
To find out how Sierra died, the reader is treated to the story of Tierwater’s transformation from an ordinary meat-eating mall owner to an eco-radical. Andrea, of course, is the one who set him on the path. He learns how to pour sand into the gas caps of heavy machinery, set down spikes of rebar on logging roads and other eco- anarchist staples. But he’s clearly headed for trouble when he, Andrea and Sierra plant their feet in some concrete he has poured in the middle of a Colorado logging road, becoming a human roadblock.
That such desperate measures fail is obvious from the book’s grim future. Fish is a luxury, selling for $3,000 a plate in such fancy holiday centres as Edinburgh or Reykjavik. Eggs can’t be had for love or money. And the open countryside has been replaced with “grey wet canyons” of condos occupied by “Criminals. Meat-eaters. Skin- cancer patients. People who know no more about animals — or nature, or the world that used to be — than their computer screens want them to know.”
A Friend of the Earth is vintage Boyle. He is at his acerbic best, imaginatively and meticulously setting up each scene in preparation for the next comic disaster. As in his previous books, Boyle moves his main character from one improbably funny incident to the next. In a set-up reminiscent of Budding Prospects, in which the marijuana farmer botches one thing after another, Tierwater descends deeper and deeper into criminal activities, each more desperate and screwed up than the last.
Boyle’s language is as frantic as his manic characters. His prose whips across the page like a winter wildfire through the Malibu hills. When Andrea confronts the police, she doesn’t simply become angry. “Her eyes swelled up pneumatically, and a ridge of three ascending Vs formed between her eyebrows, hovering there like birds of prey. Her chin became Mount Rushmore. And her mouth — the mouth that kissed, nibbled, licked, leaked words of tenderness and erotic encouragement — turned parsimonious suddenly, shrivelled up like a strip of jerky.”
Whether he’s transposing the story of Noah’s Ark into the basement of an ageing pop star’s California mansion, or retelling the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden (as he does with a sequence where Tierwater and Andrea live nude in the woods for 30 days), Boyle is at his most ferociously funny in this 21st- century parable about failed idealism. After the trees have all disappeared and paper is no longer available, people will still be reading Boyle on their computer screens.
Copyright © 2013 Charles Mandel
Originally published in several publications in November, 2000