A provocative premise delivers considerable literary dividends.
In one of his richest and most engaging novels, Boyle (The Women, 2009, etc.) characteristically combines a dark sense of humor and a subversive streak as he illuminates the dark underbelly of all-American idealism. The focus is California environmentalism, the idealization of the natural world, which is more often dangerous, even deadly, than idyllic. The novel puts two characters on a collision course, with each discovering in the process the complexities and ambiguities of their polarized opposite positions. Dr. Alma Boyd Takesue, a native Californian of mixed American and Japanese descent, spearheads a program for the National Park Service aimed at eliminating various species that have been imported to the Channel Islands, near Santa Barbara, to preserve the ecosystem and allow indigenous species to survive. Her antagonist is Dave LaJoy, head of the PETA-like FPA (For the Protection of Animals), who is both a dreadlocked hipster and a successful businessman. He is also a dislikable loudmouth—ravaging restaurant personnel, throwing his weight around, bullying Alma, whom he once dated. But he has a point: “He believes in something, the simplest clearest primary moral principle: thou shalt not kill.” And his activism has spurred plenty of press coverage that demonizes the National Park Service’s initiative, accusing Alma of trying to “manipulate nature and make a theme park out of the islands.” Nature being nature, it refuses to obey the dictates of either Alma or Dave, as their battles escalate over rats, feral pigs and rattlesnakes, and the plot naturally comes to encompass human death (and birth) as well. A richly detailed back story provides additional context, as Boyle nimbly plays chronological hopscotch, showing how both these islands and these people came to be how they are. The novel never reduces its narrative to polemics—there are no heroes here—while underscoring the difficult decisions that those who consider themselves on the side of the angels must face.
Narrative propulsion is laced with delicious irony in this winning novel.