All hell breaks loose when a proposed highway bypass threatens a peaceful neighborhood and endangers a rare species of butterfly, prompting an unreconstructed ’60s radical to scrape together a bunch of misfits and take on the town’s establishment.
It’s easy to imagine that veteran author Nichols (Conjugal Bliss, 1994, etc.) patterned his protagonist and narrator, Charley McFarland, after a kind of politically correct Hunter S. Thompson. Page after page, Charley spices up this political farce with Thompsonian-like epithets (used to describe friend and foe alike) and fantasies that even the character admits may be a little over the top. The Butterfly Coalition that Charley assembles includes a 92-year-old radical Lydia Babcock, who had been involved in many of the last century’s left-wing fracases; a progressive if somewhat frustrated reporter, Susan Delgado; his dysfunctional son, Luther; and his extremely dysfunctional, alcoholic estranged wife (Luther’s stepmother), Kelly. (Another part of Charley’s plan is to use the coalition as a catalyst for reuniting his family.) Along with himself, these four, whom Charley repeatedly explains are not ecoterrorists or “monkey wrenchers,” take on the powers-that-be in aptly named Suicide City. As with any farce, you don’t need a scorecard to distinguish the bad guys from the good, especially with Charley narrating, but the Butterfly Coalition isn’t an average activist group either. Since just about every character here is either unlikably avaricious, obnoxious, or extreme, with Kelly by far the worst of the coalition, the broadness of the comedy—both the language and the action—is a bit unfortunate in that it distances and effectively numbs the reader. Indeed, so heavy is the farce laid on that when tragedy does strike the Butterfly Coalition it elicits confusion rather than sympathy.
Still, it’s an amusing satire that, in its own way, manages to rebuke today’s political realities.