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Book Review: When the Killing’s Done by T. C. Boyle

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Long an admirer of T.C. Boyle’s historical novels, books like Water Music, The Road to Wellville and The Women, I have generally been less excited by his contemporary stories. It’s not that they are poorly done; Boyle is an effective storyteller no matter what the time period or the subject. It is simply that he has what seems to me a special talent for taking characters and events from the past and bringing them to life with a sense of immediate import, a sense that more often than not comes with the territory in his contemporary novels. When the Killing’s Done, his latest published earlier this year, is a good example.

Although it does tackle a historical flashback or two, the book treats a very modern issue — human attempts to exert control over the natural environment and the consequences intended and unintended of those attempts. Alma Boyd Takesue is a biologist working for the National Park Service charged with ridding the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara of invasive species — rats on one island, feral pigs on another — endangering the native species. The remedy she and the government are pursuing is to exterminate the invaders. Conflict ensues when a radical group of militant animal rights activists led by an obsessively overbearing business man with time on his hands, Dave LaJoy, objects to the killing off of any animals for any reason. The narrative moves back and forth between the two separate forces and the people around them as Takesue implements her plans and LaJoy attempts to thwart her.

The passionate conflicts make for page-turning reading for a good part of the novel, but the overwhelming interest of the book is in the moral questions it raises. Is the life of one species more valuable than the life of another? Are the foxes on the island of Santa Cruz more valuable than the feral pigs? Moreover, who has the right to make that decision? Are human beings empowered to decide in terms of their pragmatic interests? Indeed, are human needs the measure of what is right, especially if it is recognized that humans have in many cases been responsible for the problems in the first place? These are questions that are central to the novel. While I am not sure that Boyle supplies any easy answers, he does leave the reader with the definite sense that tampering with bio-systems to correct past blunders may not work. If the book has a message, and it does, the message is: don’t mess with Mother Nature.

Woven into a tapestry of ship wrecks and sabotage, romantic entanglements and betrayals, protests and public relations gambits, When the Killing’s Done manages to imbue these social issues with the kind of dramatic intensity that Boyle generates for his historical forays. So for those of us happily stomping about in our leather boots and chomping away at our steaks and even — heaven forbid — a hot dog or two, there is something compelling about the concerns of these vegetarian defenders of animal rights. Their passions may not be our passions, but there is nothing that will keep readers turning pages like passionate people — Ahabs pursuing their whales — pursuing their passions.

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About Jack Goodstein