“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?
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.