T.C. Boyle at Skylight Books

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to support my local bookstore, Skylight Books, a short walk from where I live in Los Feliz. Earlier this week, I went down to get a copy of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, a book I haven’t been able to get out of my head after hearing the author read a portion of it at the AWP Conference in Chicago.

While at the bookstore, I decided to get T.C. Boyle’s 13th novel now in softcover, When the Killing’s Done, as I had already planned to go to his reading on March 8. The book itself is vintage T.C Boyle, a writer who purposefully puts his characters in conflict with themselves, each other and their natural surroundings. It was reminiscent of other books of his that I’ve enjoyed such as Drop City and The Tortilla Curtain, and his themes as a writer are drawn from his interests in history, evolution and ecology, the complex scenarios that play their way out as people, plants and animals are introduced to new environments and each other.

These themes are multilayered throughout When the Killing’s Done and seep into passages such as this one: “And her condo—over-priced and under-soundproofed—occupies the war zone between the freeway out front and the railroad tracks out back, a condition she’s been able to tolerate for its access to the beach and the cool night air, and the option, which she almost always takes, even when it rains of sleeping with the window open and a blanket wrapped tightly around her through all of the seasons of the year.”

This sentence contains with it all that is great—and sometimes vexing—about T.C. Boyle. His long sentences are layered, as is the plot of this narrative that takes place over generations, with shipwrecks, tragedies, and questions about human nature and the natural order. In order to create this tapestry that weaves through time, and with long sections of backstory, T.C. Boyle relinquishes the immediacy of the main narrative thread between a scientist Alma Boyd Takesue looking to protect endangered species on California’s Channel Islands and Dave LaJoy, an activist opposed to the killing of any animals whatsoever. Because of T.C. Boyle’s insight and dark humor into the true nature of his characters, the immediacy of the suspense building from scene to scene is replaced by the feeling, like in a Greek tragedy, of impending and inescapable doom.

T.C Boyle didn’t read any passages from his novel. Instead, he read a short story, Los Gigantes, that is available on Skylight Book’s podcast, and was featured in last month’s The New Yorker. The brilliance of this story, set in an unnamed country, contains the same themes of evolution as the novel in a way that makes me certain that this author is one of our own natural treasures: as adept in short stories as novels, taking on themes relevant to our times, a writer unabashedly writing about important things.

Martin Ott

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