Book Review: “When The Killing’s Done” by T.C. Boyle

“I’ll be civil when the killing’s done…” Dave LaJoy

I’m going to get right to the point: T.C. Boyle’s latest novel, When The Killing’s Done, ought to be the book that is the lens through which we scrutinize ourselves as a society – not Jonathan Franzen’s it-book from last year, Freedom.

Focused on the Channel Islands (often referred to as North America’s Galapagos) off the coast from Santa Barbara, the novel interweaves the stories of two protagonists: Alma Boyd Takesue and Dave LaJoy.  Takesue is in charge of the National Parks Service’s attempts to rid the islands of invasive species — attempts that are aimed at protecting native endangered species and returning the Islands to how they “are supposed to be”.  LaJoy, founder of the PETA-like group For the Protection of Animals (FPA) believes that all life is sacred and seeks to stop the Alma’s efforts to exterminate invasive rats and feral pigs – first in court and then through his own groups’ efforts.  Efforts that (depending upon your point of view) could be labeled heroism or terrorism.

Both Alma and Dave are convinced of their rightness.  Alma believes in the Park Service’s mission of preservation and protection for posterity.  She loves animals, but is pragmatic about the need to remove some species so that others are not driven to extinction.  Dave and the FPA are outraged at the hubris that humans should dictate what species get to live, what species must die, and that we could ever control anything as complex as an island ecosystem.  Boyle’s subjects are complex, flawed people – pulled in several directions that often pit their ideals against their prosperity.  Alma is smart, but prickly.  LaJoy is a douche of the highest order – but that doesn’t necessarily make him wrong, does it?

When The Killing's Done

In other books, Boyle has occasionally written for laughs, but here the only smiles are from irony and sad resignation.  The story is told from different perspectives over several generations – from Alma’s grandmother who nearly lost her life in a shipwreck off the islands, to Dave’s girlfriend who grew up on a sheep ranch on one of the islands before they became a National Park.  At times, the book feels like an adventure story and has some absolutely riveting as well as heartbreaking scenes.  And throughout — in the background are the animals (every one of them an invasive species at one point if you think about it) that only know one thing: how to try to survive.

Importantly, the story touches on the area’s history – both natural and political — which adds a richness that pervades the writing.  As a reader, I felt like the Islands themselves were main characters in the story – as if they were the children of squabbling divorcing parents that both claimed superior love for them.

More than Freedom was ever capable of doing, we are forced to decide where we stand.  Where is the intersection of our pragmatism and our principles?  Of course, like every important question about society and its use (and/or abuse) of Nature, there’s no simple answer and Boyle doesn’t spell one out – he leaves it for the reader to dwell upon — likely long after the last page has been read.

Five stars out of five.

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19 thoughts on “Book Review: “When The Killing’s Done” by T.C. Boyle

  1. You make me love reading all over again! Love this line you wrote: ” As a reader, I felt like the Islands themselves were main characters in the story – as if they were the children of squabbling divorcing parents that both claimed superior love for them.”
    Also, “The Women”…is that the same as the movie, or am I thinking of something completely different?

    • Thanks Jenna! :)

      “The Women” is about the life of Frank Lloyd Wright that came out in 2009. I have it but haven’t read it yet. There was a movie of the same title, but not the same subject matter.

  2. You make an irresistible argument. Just sitting here, I can think of good arguments in both directions, so my curiosity is definitely piqued. Cheers!

  3. This is the kind of book that I a) want to read and b) am afraid to read. I think that the subject is right up my alley, but it would be really hard for me to get through it. I also think that I’d recognize myself and just about everyone I know in a book like this, and I don’t know how I feel about that.

    I keep seeing Franzen’s “Freedom” everywhere. Apparently he lives part of the year in Santa Cruz, so the hype is huge. I’d like to check it out eventually.

    Hey, speaking of Santa Cruz, the cover photo of “When the Killing’s Done” looks like our very own Natural Bridges State Beach.

    • Erin — yeah, when he describes the upper-middle class “advocates” in their expensive cars and restaurants, it’s right on target. And it’s not always pretty, because he does a great job of juxtaposing reality and hypocrisy.

      Both this book and Franzen’s cover society’s interaction with and attempt to control nature — both from a use and conservation standpoint — but Boyle’s was much more believable (characterwise) and more subtly captured the grey areas.

  4. I’ve always enjoyed T.C. Boyle’s novels, even when they make me squirm in discomfort. He knows so well the people’s he writing with, whether it’s 19th-century health fanatics like in “The Road to Wellville,” environmental activists (about half of his books have environmental themes) and wealthy liberals who are not as well-intentioned as their alleged beliefs. He’s also courageous: I saw him years ago at a reading at a small liberal-arts college known for its ultra-left-wing faculty and student body, and the audience was decidedly not friendly to his latest book. (Tortilla Curtain? not sure anymore.) He answered their questions with a candidness and humility that surprised everyone, saying he was “just a writer” and “I don’t have the answers to everything, I’m better at asking questions.” But at the end he received a standing ovation. He’s not just a good writer, but an honest thinker.

    • HG — I haven’t connected with all his books, but a couple have really hit home. “Tortilla Curtain” should be required reading for everyone that lives in Southern California or wants to be a blow-hard about illegal immigration.

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