When nature and humans collide, it gets wordy out there

Book review: "When the Killing's Done," by T.C. Boyle. Viking, $26.95.

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The killing's really never done in T.C. Boyle's lurid vision of the natural world. It's part of the daily routine -- dog eat dog -- only now mankind is making things worse.

That's the unsubtle message the novelist pounds home in his 13th novel, written in a low-grade fever of pedantic wordplay and clumsy analogies, as though his editor called in sick the day the manuscript arrived.

At 62, Mr. Boyle has carved a significant place for himself as the country's cleverest historical novelist, creating a handful of earthy, sensual books from the lives of such real people as John Kellogg, Alfred Kinsey, Frank Lloyd Wright and Stanley McCormick.

He has shown an intelligent respect for American history, unafraid to come across as a geek in one passage, then quick to counter that impression with pungently realistic descriptions of enemas, masturbation, sloppy eating or bloody accidents. Mr. Boyle's books are neither modest nor discrete, but well balanced.

Something about the topic of invasive species has tipped the scales here, though, sending the author cartwheeling into showy exhibitionism.

Perhaps because Mr. Boyle lives near the Northern Channel Islands off the Southern California coast, he's turned the intensity up a few notches. "When the Killing's Done" is really a polemic about the devastation of those windswept places by careless humans and a naked attack on aggressive self-promotion in the cause of animal rights.

His hero is Alma Boyd Takesue, coordinator of the National Park Service efforts to eradicate unnatural predators from the channel islands to restore the proper balance for the wildlife. She's careful, moderate and respectful, but committed to her cause.

The villain is the clumsily named Dave LaJoy, an animal activist who makes his battle to save the rats eating the eggs of endangered birds a personal crusade involving stupid sabotage attempts, including the dumping of rattlesnakes on one of the islands.

Mr. Boyle excels in physical descriptions, a tireless accumulation of the little details of everyday life:

"The heels tap closer and she freezes while the handle of the stall briefly rattles and whoever it is pulls back the door of the adjoining stall and settles in with a sigh, followed by a fierce hissing rush of urine."

That "fierce hissing rush" describes a lot of passages in Mr. Boyle's episodic story that includes the history of the Channel Islands, the several deadly disasters -- real and fictional -- that occurred on their rocky shores and the rocky lives of the matriarchal families who people his world.

Alma's mother was widowed when her husband died in a commercial fishing accident, just one in a number of husbands and fathers who are killed in the Northern Channel in the course of the book.

The women aren't spared misery either. LaJoy's girlfriend, Anise, and her mother, Rita, witnessed the killings of newborn lambs by ravens, in that excessive Boyle style of blood and gore. Poor lambs. And, of course, Rita is a single mother.

A word about the author's choice of words -- unnecessary. Why not use "hair" instead of "pelage" or "cramps" for "peristalsis?" And what does "brodifacoum" mean? (It's rat poison.)

In the analogy department, Mr. Boyle makes a point to make them, not always successfully. For instance, why does eroded soil peel "away like ineptly grafted skin" when it rains, meaning it comes away in sheets rather than in muddy rivulets bit by bit?

T.C. Boyle loves to write, treasures the language and creates sympathetic, fully human characters, but in his latest novel, discipline and regard have "peeled away," replaced by extravagance and intemperance.

Bob Hoover: 412-263-1634 or bhoover@post-gazette.com .


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