TC Boyle has been called "one of our most American novelists since Mark Twain, and one of our very best." (Boston Globe) I have been hooked since Tortilla Curtain came out in 1995, painting a startling portrait of the haves and have nots in Los Angeles as it followed the intersecting lives of a wealthy white suburbanite and the undocumented homeless Mexican man whom Mr. Gated Community hits with his car. Tortilla Curtain is so well written and powerful in its focus on our shared humanity that I believe it should be required reading for every American child.
I heard Boyle read from his latest book, 2015's The Harder They Come, in Los Angeles (He teaches at USC.) It was great to hear the words straight from that feisty and brilliant mind, and I bought a copy to be signed (I think it says Con Amore? and I am unfortunately, not related, though we share a last name), but it took me a while to reach this book in my ever-growing pile. I just finished it and feel compelled to put fingers to key in praise. This book could not be more American, nor more timely. First, it explores a standoff between off-the-grid and out of his mind Adam, an anti-authoritarian, armed survivalist on public lands, bringing to mind the current Bundy standoff on federal land in Nevada. Second, Adam changes his name to Colter in honor of John Colter, an American Wilderness Legend so tough, Adam declares him to be tougher than Hugh Glass, the mountain man currently portrayed so unforgettably in The Revenant by Leonardo DiCaprio. The passages about Adam shift between the reality he is encountering as he grows opium in the woods of Northern California, has steamy sex with a fellow rebel (who actually has a job and a home), and leads the authorities on a manhunt -- with dream state passages about Adam's alternate personality as Colter, the historical figure surviving in the bitter wilderness and escaping from Blackfeet Natives who killed his partner and chased him to kill. The real Colter arrived at the nearest fort in 1809, 200 miles away from the attack, naked, and almost, but not, dead. Casting this book in my head, I had Leonardo DiCaprio or Christian Bale as Adam playing bad ass and increasingly crazy.
The story is also about Adam's father, a recently retired high school principal, ex-Marine and Vietnam Vet who starts the book as a reluctant hero on vacation in Coast Rica when the tour group is assaulted by armed robbers. Sten Stensen is a big man, who loves his wife, and just wants to hike and enjoy his home in Mendocino but is thrown into the lime light first by unwanted heroism for his instinctive violent action in Costa Rica and then by the manhunt for his son.
What makes this book great is not just the page turning surprises that keep coming, the graphic words that fly off the pages, but the ever present humanity with which Boyle treats every single character, whether they are out of their minds vigilantes or just trying to get by as law abiding citizens in silence. Boyle has a gift for examining human characters in full, from neuroses, to biological needs, to desire to rise above the muck about them, to the capacity to love others just as broken and beautiful as they are. In the end, this book is about the American Psyche: our desire for independence versus our need for each other, our violent natures versus our desire for peace, and our adoration of youth versus our opportunity to grow old. American Classic.