Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Every era has its own fads and fashions, but also its
distinctive tone of voice.  In our current age, the dominant
tone is an aggrieved one. You know what I’m talking about—
that self-righteous inflection with an undercurrent of
whininess.  You hear it everywhere, on TV and radio, out on
the streets and down at the local watering hole.  Everyone it
seems, is copping an attitude, and a pretty bad one at
that.  Yeah, we once had the greatest generation…but now
we’re merely left with the most
grating generation.

Novelist T. Coraghessan Boyle captures the mood perfectly in his latest
novel
When the Killing’s Done, a brilliant and rambling narrative set in
and around California’s Channel Islands.  The landscape is breathtaking
here: sweeping vistas, craggy rocks, mist
and fog, and most of it pristine, untouched
by human hands.  But the beauty of these
islands is a deadly one and, from the outset
of his book, Boyle unleashes nature’s full
fury on those naïve enough to treat these
untamed shores as a source of idle diversion.

Even so, the clash of agendas in these pages
ultimately proves more dangerous than the
crash of the waves.  Alma Boyd Takesue, a
biologist working for the National Park Service,
has an ambitious agenda—namely, to return
the Channel Islands to the state they were in
before their ecosystems were ravaged by the
arrival of predators from other locales.   Her first goal is to eliminate
the rats, then the hogs.  She also wants to get rid of golden eagles
and reintroduce bald eagles.  She wants more foxes.  And what about
people?  This reclamation project is heralded as a public service, but
Takesue is lukewarm at best on humans coming to these shores.  Her
ideal is recreating a past before the pesky
homo sapiens ever arrived.  

Readers got a taste of this ecological activism, and the controversies it
engenders, in Jonathan Franzen’s recent
Freedom, but here it takes
center stage.  Alma has an adversary.  Dave LaJoy also wants to
preserve the islands—but preserve them as they are currently, rats
and all.  He is a successful local businessman with an anger
management problem who has started up an activist group known as
For the Protection of Animals (FPA).  He battles the National Park
Service in the courts, in public meetings and in secret acts of civil
disobedience.  He harasses Alma in private.  Impatience and incipient
rage permeate every aspect of his life.

Takesue and LaJoy spar again and again in the course of Boyle’s novel,
and though the former is depicted in somewhat more favorable terms,
the two are, in many ways, mirror images of each other.   They both
are vegetarians, enjoy the same music, haunt the same locales, have
the same stubborn determination to impose their personal Edenic
vision on the nearby islands.   And both convey that characteristic self-
righteous tone—aggrieved that others can’t see things the way they
see them, won’t abide by their particular schemes and ambitions.  
Readers can hardly be surprised when, midway though the book, they
learn that the two combatants once dated—a matchmaker might easily
think to pair them up as kindred spirits.

But in their current encounter, they are bitter enemies.  And both have
certain advantages.  Alma has the power of the government on her
side, and all the prerogatives that come with her office and
connections.  Dave has his own personal wealth and influence, but has
the further edge that comes with a willingness to take chances, break
the rules, and dare others to stop him.   In an odd sort of way, they
are evenly matched: the power of the law confronting the power that
recognizes no law above personal conscience.  

Boyle adorns this central plot with peripheral narratives, spanning the
period form 1850s to the 21st century.  He conveys the evolution of
the Channel Islands ecosystem via a series of dramatic personal
stories.  The wreck of the SS Winfield Scott, a sidewheel steamboat
that crashed into Middle Anacapa Island on December 1, 1853—a true
historical event—is recounted in vivid detail, and not just for the
inherent appeal of tales of shipwreck and rescue, but as an explanation
for the large rat population on the island.  Other stories presented
here include a riveting account of a boating accident that turned Alma’s
grandmother into a castaway on Anacapa Island, and the story of a
failed experiment in modern-day coastal shepherding.  The various
sidebar plots present both an ecological history of the terrain and fuel
the character-driven conflicts of the novel.  

Boyle is a master of such intersecting stories, in which history,
biography and sheer invention mix seamlessly—as he demonstrated
most recently in his novel
The Women, published just a year before
When the Killing’s Done.  Yet his virtuosity in this newer work is even
more marked.   The core issues dealt with here—biodiversity, evolution,
the food chain, environmental engineering—may be grand ones, but
hardly seem promising subjects for large-scale fiction.  Yet Boyle
manages to make the leap in a book that never lags, and where the
plot lines present each of these weighty topics in stark human terms, a
matter of individuals and their crisscrossing hopes, dreams and
agendas.  

Perhaps the biggest surprise here is the stridently contemporary feel of
a novel that is so rooted in the past.   If the Far West once symbolized
untrammeled freedom and a pioneering or bohemian spirit, the
downsized California of the current day may be inspiring a different
kind of fiction.   Boyle immerses us in this new mood—where dreams of
past glory capsize on reefs much more treacherous than those off the
Santa Barbara coast, and the once laid-back coastal culture is replaced
by rising tempers and clashing coalitions.   Those who have
experienced this sea change first hand may find the troubled waters of
When the Killing’s Done all too familiar.


Ted Gioia writes on books, music and popular culture. His newest book is Love Songs: The
Hidden History, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Publication Date
: February 26, 2011
When the Killing's Done

by T. C. Boyle
Contact Ted Gioia at
tedgioia@hotmail.com

Visit his web site at
www.tedgioia.com

Great Books Guide is an
Amazon.com associate

Disclosure:  This web site and
its sister sites may receive
promotional copies of review
items and other materials from
publisher, publicists and other
parties.
Visit our sister sites:

The New Canon
The best works of fiction published since 1985

Conceptual Fiction
The best of fantasy, science fiction, magical
realism and alternative reality

Postmodern Mystery
Experimental, unconventional and postmodern
approaches to stories of mystery and suspense
Home Page
The 100 Best Novels
The Ten Year Reading List
The Alt Reality Nobel Prize
Great Books Guide
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter:
www.twitter.com/tedgioia
Visit our sister sites:

Fractious Fiction
Radical, unconventional or experimental
works of fiction

The New Canon
The best works of fiction published
since 1985

Conceptual Fiction
The best of fantasy, science fiction,
magical realism and alternative reality

Postmodern Mystery
Experimental, unconventional and
postmodern approaches to stories of
mystery and suspense
Selected Reviews
(2007-2014)
BY TED GIOIA

Daniel Kehlmann [click here]
David Mitchell [
click here]
Richard Powers [
click here]
Donna Tartt [
click here]
Eleanor Catton [
click here]
Marisha Pessl [
click here]
Michael Chabon [
click here]
Zadie Smith [
click here]
Martin Amis [
click here]
Karen Walker [
click here]
Kurt Vonnegut [
click here]
Hari Kunzru [
click here]
Chad Harbach [
click here]
Chuck Palahniuk [
click here]
Ernest Cline [
click here]
Mark Haddon [
click here]
Bonnie Jo Campbell [
click here]
China Miéville [
click here]
V.S. Naipaul [
click here]
David Foster Wallace [
click here]
T.C. Boyle [
click here]
Colm Tóibín [
click here]
Bruce Machart [
click here]
Jonathan Franzen [
click here]
Per Petterson [
click here]
David Mitchell [
click here]
Joseph Epstein [
click here]
Frederick Turner [
click here]
Tom Rachman [
click here]
Martin Amis [
click here]
Ian McEwan [
click here]
Robert Stone [
click here]
Don DeLillo [
click here]
Joshua Ferris [
click here]
Paul Auster [
click here]
Philip Roth [
click here]
Jonathan Lethem [
click here]
Richard Powers [
click here]
Jedediah Berry [
click here]
Richard Russo [
click here]
Thomas Pynchon [
click here]
Reif Larsen [
click here]
Arthur Phillips [
click here]
Colm Tóibín [
click here]
Jayne Anne Phillips [
click here]
Geoff Dyer [
click here]
T.C. Boyle [
click here]
Jonathan Littell [
click here]
Daniel Suarez [
click here]
Jim Harrison [
click here]
José Saramago [
click here]
Toni Morrison [
click here]
Roberto Bolaño [
click here]
Elizabeth Strout [
click here]
Chuck Klosterman [
click here]
Paul Auster [
click here]
Philip Roth [
click here]
Julian Barnes [
click here]
Marilynne Robinson
[click here]
Tim Winton [
click here]
Jonathan Miles [
click here]
Jhumpa Lahiri [
click here]
Joseph O'Neill [
click here]
Richard Price [
click here]
Tobias Wolff [
click here]
Donald Ray Pollock
[click here]
Charles Bock [
click here]
Geraldine Brooks [
click here]
Alan Bennett [
click here]
Mario Vargas Llosa [
click here]
Denis Johnson [
click here]
Philip Roth [
click here]
Ann Patchett [
click here]
Junot Diaz [
click here]
Matt Ruff [
click here]
Ryszard Kapuściński [
click here]
Roberto Bolaño [
click here]
Jack Kerouac [
click here]
John Leland [
click here]
Ian McEwan [
click here]
Khaled Hosseini [
click here]
Don DeLillo [
click here]
Michael Chabon [
click here]
Haruki Murakami [click here]
Jonathan Lethem [
click here]
Michael Ondaatje [
click here]
Steven Hall [
click here]