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The Harder They Come.

Boyle, T. C. (author).
Mar. 2015. 400p. Ecco, hardcover, $27.99 (9780062349378); Ecco, e-book (9780062349392).
REVIEW. First published February 1, 2015 (Booklist).

T. C. Boyle’s love and mastery of language are matched by a vehement imagination and a profound fascination with the glory and ruthlessness of nature and the paradoxes of humankind. How can a species be at once so brainy and so destructive? Boyle’s virtuoso short stories fill 10 volumes, and he now has 15 novels to his name, some linked to controversial historical figures, such as Alfred Kinsey in The Inner Circle (2004) and Frank Lloyd Wright in The Women (2009). Boyle is equally inspired by the struggles of less-well-known individuals, such as the hardy few who attempted to settle California’s Northern Channel Islands, the inspiration for When the Killing’s Done (2011) and San Miguel (2012).

The Harder They Come, Boyle’s latest high-adrenaline tale of American individualism gone psychopathic, is pegged to the jaw-dropping story of the original mountain man, John Colter. Recruited by Lewis and Clark, Colter was an exceptional hunter, trapper, and scout. Believed to be the first white man to have seen the wonders of Yellowstone, he became legendary for his escape from a group of riled Blackfeet in Montana, who stripped him naked, let him go, then gave chase, intending to hunt him down. But Colter ran for his life through severe cold for some 300 miles and survived.

In today’s abused and pillaged wilds of California’s Mendocino County, Adam, 25, worships Colter, and even takes his name. Prone to aberrant and violent behavior, Adam is in the grip of militant survivalist mania and raging, untreated schizophrenia. Camped out in the hills, he is growing his own medication, opium poppy.

His parents are on a cruise. When they join a group onshore in Costa Rica, three armed men surround them and demand their valuables. While the others cower, his father, Sten, a Vietnam vet and retired high-school principal, becomes so enraged, he kills one of the bandits with his bare hands.

Back in Mendocino, we meet another outlaw, one who does more harm to herself than to others. Sara is 40 or so, devoted to her dog, and supporting herself as a substitute teacher and a farrier, tending to the hoofs of the region’s horses and, in a private nature preserve for endangered African wildlife, zebras and antelopes. Sara is also a fine gardener, a darn good cook, and a rabid member of the so-called sovereign citizen movement, which considers the U.S. government illegitimate. Recklessly rebellious, Sara picks up Adam when he’s hitchhiking and seduces him.

There is no doubt that renegades Adam, Sara, and Sten are racing toward a conflagration. As the body count and public hysteria rise, an enormous manhunt is launched. Riffing on actual events, Boyle intensifies both suspense and provocation as he delves into the question of violence as an inherited malady not only within a family but throughout American society. He further widens the frame to take in the terror and environmental havoc wrought by illegal drug operations on state and federal land, the hate and hysteria aimed at undocumented immigrants, and the collision between mental instability and violent anti-government extremism. Boyle’s illumination of minds in the grip and whirl of overwhelming fear, fury, and madness as well as stubborn and courageous love blazes in its specificity and empathy.

Then there’s this seizing view of nature channeled through Adam’s poisoned senses:

“So what he did was wait while everything alive spoke to him from the deep grass and the bushes and the hollows in the dirt. . . . They were saying Make War, Not Love. Because they were at war down there, too, war that began the minute they hatched from their eggs . . . eat or be eaten and then go ahead and sing about it.”

And what might they sing? Boyle’s title leads us to reggae star Jimmy Cliff’s indelible lyrics:

Well, the oppressors are trying to keep me down

Trying to drive me underground

And they think that they have got the battle won

I say forgive them Lord, they know not what they’ve done

’Cause, as sure as the sun will shine

I’m gonna get my share now, what’s mine

And then the harder they come

The harder they fall, one and all.

HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Boyle taps into urgent national questions in a novel primed to make literary headlines as he tours the country in sync with a substantial publicity campaign.

— Donna Seaman

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Kirkus Reviews

Book Cover

A Pulitzer Prize–winning historian considers the “unsuspected complexities” of recovering the past.

In this gathering of nine essays, published from 1954 to 2007, Bailyn (Emeritus, History/Harvard Univ.; The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675, 2012, etc.) illuminates the historian’s craft. In five pieces on historiography, he considers the distinction between history and collective memory and historians’ struggle to hone a sharp, clear lens—undistorted by personal “assumptions, attitudes, beliefs, and experiences”—through which to investigate the realities of past lives. In several essays on the early British Empire, the focus of much of the author’s scholarship, he examines Britain’s relationship with Scotland, the North American colonies and Australia; and the mysteriously vilified Thomas Hutchinson, about whom Bailyn wrote a biography. A tribute to historian Isaiah Berlin gives Bailyn an occasion to reflect on the political and cultural impact of perfectionist movements. The historian’s greatest problem, writes the author, lies in “recovering the contexts in which events take place.” He distinguishes between “manifest history,” “the story of events that contemporaries were clearly aware of, that were…so to speak headline events in their own time,” and history that discovers elusive “latent events,” unrecorded by contemporaries, that “form a new landscape, like that of the ocean floor…never seen before as actual rocks, ravines, and cliffs” but that inexorably shape “the surface world.” Such events include commonplace experiences: the discomfort, for example, “of clothing that itched, of shoes that tore the feet, of lice, fleas, and vermin.” Historians that Bailyn most admires—Perry Miller, Charles McLean Andrews, Lewis Namier and Ronald Syme—were exemplars of contextualization and, therefore, “redirectors of inquiry.”

Informing all of these graceful, authoritative essays is the mind of a humanist whose project is to reanimate “a hitherto unglimpsed world.”

Book Cover

The meeting between a restless young woman and a manipulative, worldly man in Delhi ignites a volatile, ill-fated love story, delivered with histrionic touches by debut Indian writer Kapoor.

“The world keeps turning, but no one knows what turns in me,” reports the nameless female narrator of this short, overheated first novel, who opens with the announcement that her lover died when she was 21. Looking back 10 years later, the woman records her awkward early years, her mother’s death when she was 17, her beloved father’s abandonment of her, her relocation to Delhi to live with Aunty and attend college. There, she meets a man in a cafe. “I am pretty and he is ugly. And the secret is this turns me on.” Ugly he may be, and a liar too, it emerges, but the man knows Delhi inside out, has wealth, confidence and a wild streak, and woos her slowly but thoroughly. When the sex eventually begins, it’s intense and he’s in control. Kapoor boosts her slender coming-of-age story with flashes of Delhi in 2000, a place of economic ferment in some quarters, while elsewhere, the teeming centuries-old ways continue. Men’s predatory glances—and actions—are all around. Consumed by her passion, the girl allows her lover to dress her and give her drugs to sample. Later, after his death, she will sleep with strangers, taking coke to assuage her guilt at the thought he might have committed suicide over her. Yet their relationship had turned destructive toward the end, heralding the man’s mental breakdown. While the truth will remain ever obscure, the girl will eventually move on.

Overfreighted with the angst of youth, this novel is at its most impressive in its impressionistic evocation of a dazzling, dangerous cityscape.

The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths
Book Cover

In Bingham’s (Love Story, With Murders, 2014, etc.) latest thriller, South Wales DC Fiona Griffiths’ third outing finds her undercover trying to expose a group committing computer fraud and leaving bodies in its wake.

A payroll scam in which a store was unknowingly making payments to nonemployees is a case for the Fraud Squad, not usually for DC Griffiths of Major Crime. But when one of those names turns out to be a woman who’s died of starvation, Fiona is determined to stop those guilty of, if nothing else, what she considers to be manslaughter. Her persistence on the case leads to the discovery of what is irrefutably murder and the ultimate realization that the embezzlement is much bigger, including fraudulent names among numerous companies. Fiona, having successfully passed a rigorous undercover training course, gets a job as a cleaner, then in payroll, both as Fiona Grey. Sure enough, she’s approached by Vic Henderson, representing a nefarious band of thieving crooks. But Fiona, who suffers from a mental illness that renders her emotionless, may be in more danger of losing herself in her new identity. The author’s story is fairly straightforward; it’s primarily a question of who—be it Vic or any of the associates Fiona eventually encounters—is the brains behind the fraud. What makes the novel an exceptional piece of work are its characters, particularly the absorbing protagonist. Even with Fiona’s first-person perspective, readers are given only a glimpse of her mindset. Fiona, for instance, recognizes the feeling of fear, but when she’s threatened by Vic, fear becomes an enhanced sensation that’s more substantial and natural in her Grey persona. Likewise, the dual identities in the story are perpetually oscillating, as a seemingly indecisive Fiona will at different times refer both to herself and Fiona Grey in the third-person—a struggle later augmented when she goes deeper undercover with yet another identity. As fascinating as Fiona is, she’s matched by her villainous counterpart. Vic’s lust for Fiona seems genuine, but he eludes police attention and remains ambiguous, a quality that’s sometimes unnerving. When Fiona asks whether he’s killed someone, he dubiously responds, “Not necessarily me.” Fiona’s narrative sears the pages with indelible assertions: “Deception is so easy, I wonder why it isn’t more common.”

The simple plot is merely a foundation for intriguing characters who provide the real experience.

<January 2015>