Sunday, April 2, 2017

T.C. Boyle's "environmental(ist)" novel

I recently finished T.C. Boyle's A Friend of the Earth, a nice departure from the spate of biographies he had been doing (Frank Lloyd Wright, Dr. Kellogg, and Alfred Kinsey), and an interesting meditation on the personal and public politics of climate change

The novel follows the life of Tyrone O'Shaugnessy Tierwater, who becomes a radicalized environmentalist by his third wife, Andrea. Tierwater's "environmentalism" is prompted by a roiling emotional stew of egotism, anger, jealousy, and confused masculinity. Boyle implies throughout that Andrea is the better "man," more rational, active, and less prone to dithering.

The plot moves from Tierwater's first-person narratives in the year 2025 to flashbacks in third person. In the sections narrated by Tierwater, global warming is just getting grim, causing mass extinctions, gruelingly hot weather, and unpredictable rainfall. Tierwater is living with a burned-out rock star, Maclovio Pulchris, who has amassed a menagerie of "animals nobody loves," buzzards, hyenas, and a trio of elderly and frustrated lions. The rains come in a deluge. Everyone, including the animals, have to move into the house. But this this "ark" won't land happily on Mt. Ararat surrounded by rainbows and doves.

Tierwater's relationship with Andrea and his daughter, Sierra, is fractured and rocky (like the geographical features they are named for (there are other heavy-handed allusions in this novel). But Tierwater clings to them with the same blind, guilt-ridden and impotent loyalty he feels for the animals in Pulchris's menagerie.

If there is a "message" here it is that people cannot turn back the clock on climate change, especially not people like Tierwater, whose environmental activities are gut-driven and inconsistent. (Is Tierwater's approach to ecological disaster a reflection of larger political forces to work together on climate change? I think so.) And Andrea's rabble rousing, however active, ends up inspiring weird symbolic protests that mostly just piss people off. The inescapable conclusion is that, as a species, we have become too smart for our own good and we deserve to be slapped around by nature for our stupidity.

The novel is also a meditation on age. Tierwater is 75, easily winded, full of bile and aching joints. He has railed against the forces of nature and society, and his losses are heavy. He seeks not enlightenment or insights, but closure.

I don't think Boyle has written anything as good as Drop City (2003) in a long while, and he may not again. However, A Friend of the Earth is still a worthwhile and timely read.

--Jean Hughes Raber


  1. Interesting, Jean. I haven't heard of a novel treating with the human side of climate change. Eventually, it will become a concrete presence in daily life and I suppose, literature. I'll have to give the book a shot. Thanks for the review.

  2. It's kind of depressing. One reviewer said the book was ultimately optimistic. He must live on Planet Happy Farm, given that a common theme in Boyle's books is the tragedy of unwarranted optimism and how, even in the face of cataclysm, people can't stop tinkering and making things worse.

    Cli-fi is a growing sub genre of speculative fiction. Here's a whole article about it in Salon.

    There are a lot of young adult novels on this topic. I think climate change is their bogey man like the Bomb was for us.

  3. It sounds interesting. From what you've written about it, it reminds me of The Road, but hopefully not as grim.

  4. No, nothing like "The Road," which gave me nightmares.

  5. Jean, You sold me. I lost Boyle when he veered into biography, where he couldn't invent Japanese sailors who wanted to be big leaguers and thought Sergei Ozawa picked them up when they hitch-hiked in the Carolinas. There is too much going on in that mind to be tied down by non-fiction. I read an uninspiring review (maybe the optimistic reviewer) and let it go. I will get it.

  6. Tom, this isn't Boyle's best work, but maybe he is back on the right road. I thought his portrayal of the love parents have for their adult children was nicely done. You never stop worrying and loving, but your ability to guide and protect them is limited to zip.