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