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T.C. Boyle

A Friend In Need

T.C. Boyle satirizes hypocrisy in 'A Friend of the Earth'

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

A Friend of the Earth
By T.C. Boyle
Viking; 271 pages; $24.95 cloth

MODERN AMERICAN science fiction has somehow gotten the label of "genre," whatever that means exactly. "Genre" is one of those terms that everybody uses but no one defines. Somehow, though, it seems to be a couple of steps below what is called "popular" fiction and several stair flights down from "literature."

Subcategorizing T.C. Boyle's latest novel, A Friend of the Earth, in such a way is going to be a problem. Sure, this is pure science fiction, but only in the way that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and all of Edgar Allan Poe's works were "horror." Sure, A Friend of the Earth is science fiction. It's also awfully good writing.

Fresh from poking fun at the mental and sexual health of the capital class in The Road to Wellville and Riven Rock, Boyle now simultaneously takes on the hypocrisy of the environmental movement and the insanity of our neglect of the environment. It's a nice literary trick, and as always, he pulls it off masterfully.

A Friend of the Earth is set in the ecologically disastrous period in the near future (that's the science fiction part) in which the greenhouse effect has become a world reality: Brazil and New Guinea are desert countries and Southern California has become monsoon territory. Maybe worst of all, for Bay Area residents, overcrowding has turned the area into one huge north-south megalopolis named San Jose Francisco (perhaps that should qualify the book as a "horror" novel, with a contest as to who might be more horrified, San Franciscans or South Bay residents).

Ty Tierwater is an aging ex-eco activist living on a Southern California zoological ranch owned by an ex-rock star, a ranch that attempts to preserve the last specimens of the flotsam and jetsam of the earth's dying creatures: lions, Patagonian foxes, hyenas, bears and peccaries.

The story slips back and forth between the present (our future) and the past (our present), as Tierwater confronts both his own failed life as a political activist, husband and father as well as the mistakes and ineptitudes of the environmental movement that helped lead to the collapse of the ecosystem as we know it.

AS ALWAYS, Boyle's writing is quick and breezily easy, as in describing the sexual effects of a month-long trip to the Sierra Nevada old forest, where Tierwater and his wife leave both clothes and tools behind and attempt to carve out a living with no modern assistance:

It was erotic, the primitive life, Tierwater was thinking--all those naked pot-bellied tribes in the jungles of South America and New Guinea, bare breasts, loincloths, penis sheaths, doing it in the hut, on a log, in the stream as the water sizzled round you--but it only took a day or two to disabuse him of that notion. The fact was that lust consumed calories, and in the final analysis calories were the only thing that mattered. Once their cells had been burned clean of fats, nitrates and cholesterol, once they understood that the odd fish, indifferently charred on a green stick, or a fistful of manzanita berries au naturel was it for the day--hold the butter, please, and no, I think I'll pass on the napoleons this evening--their erotic life came to a screeching halt. He saw his wife crouched there by the new and improved hut, weaving sticks into a primitive weir, her breasts pendulous, her skin so burned, abraded and chewed over it was like a scrub pad, and he barely glanced up. There's a naked woman, he thought, in the same way he might have thought, There's a tree or a rock.

As we have also come to expect from Boyle, he takes needle-sharp digs at every target within his sight and long reach: clear-cutting lumber companies and their idiotic goons, professional environmentalists who tromp on the movement with $300 boots, lawbreaking rural sheriffs, vengeful judges, bumbling ecoterrorists (at one point, a group of environmental activists hikes miles into the deepwoods to block a lumber road by cementing themselves into the ground, only to realize that none of them have ever, actually, mixed cement before).

Only one character goes unscathed: Tierwater's daughter, Sierra, who steals a page out of today's headlines by undertaking a three-year occupation of the upper heights of an old-growth redwood. Sierra is the Joan of Arc of A Friend of the Earth--pure, idealistic, untainted by either the cynicism or human flaws of each of the rest of the book's characters.

Probing Boyle's mind and trying to figure out what point he is trying to make is a dangerous enterprise, but perhaps Sierra is meant to stand for the hope of humanity, that somewhere there are people who can help save us from ourselves, if we take a mind to listen. He paints a pretty scary picture of the alternative.

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From the November 9-15, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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