Breeze through T.C. Boyle’s epigraphs at your own peril—they’re often the germ of his stories.
“Epigraph and title are really the framework to start nailing the walls onto,” says Boyle, by phone, from home in Santa Barbara, California. It’s one day ahead of the national tour for his 25th book, The Harder They Come, which bears a kickoff quotation from D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature:
“The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”
In The Harder They Come, Boyle offers up an invigorating meditation on American violence—by turns feared and cheered. Veteran Marine and retired school principal Sten Stensen, 70, becomes a reluctant beneficiary of that violence when a mainland side trip on a Central American vacation cruise results in his bare-handedly killing a gun-wielding bandit. Back home in Fort Bragg, California, neighbors who heard it on the news send over celebratory drinks at the local steakhouse.
He’s “manipulated, and worse, glorified not for any virtue, but for a single act of violence that haunted him every time he shut his eyes,” Boyle writes.
In contrast to his father, 25-year-old Adam Stensen takes the idea of being “hard” and runs with it, literally, into the Northern California woods, where he shoots two people, compelling a weeks-long manhunt. Hardbodied and hardhearted, he’s the fearsome type who’s graced the news with increased frequency since Boyle delivered his novel to Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins, in fall 2013.
“ ‘Hard,’ in the terms of these shooters [in the news]—it’s this kind of thing you see in the typical crappy American film, the thriller and the Western and so on, where there is no middle ground,” he says. “There is no civilization, there is no compromise, there is violence only. The bad guy is exclusively bad, and the good guy is exclusively good, and so for the first half hour the bad guy destroys the good guy’s home, beats him up, and for the next two-thirds of the movie, the good guy exacts his revenge on the bad guy, and we all cheer. Well, I think things are a little more complex than that.”
Adam exhibits an unnamed mental illness, seemingly schizophrenia. He self-medicates with booze, weed—whatever—but grows increasingly delusional. He idealizes and emulates 19th-century survivalist John Colter, to the point of insisting that “Colter” is his name. Boyle writes:
In the mornings he was clear, or mostly so, and he knew what was happening to him and knew that dope and alcohol made it worse—or better, definitely better—and that all his plans, the plans he talked up in his own head and out loud too, with his own lips and tongue and mouth, were going to come to nothing, that the poppies would die and the hostiles would come for him and he’d lead them on a merry chase, but that in the end everything in this life was just shit and more shit.
“One of the joys in writing this book for me was to write from Adam’s point of view,” he says. “I have a piece coming out in the Washington Post on the 6th of April, and it’s about the fact that I’ve had two close friends who were schizophrenic in my life, and I’ve also written about schizophrenics before, in Riven Rock. To enter his point of view, and make it sympathetic—obviously, he’s a murderer—but if I’ve done my job right he is unique, and you do identify with him.”
Sara Hovarty Jennings does, or at least tries to. A right-wing anarchist 15 years his senior, Sara swiftly consummates a relationship with Adam, the enigmatic hitchhiker who helps rescue her quarantined dog from the clutches of the “U.S. Illegitimate Government of American the Corporate.” But the love of a kind-of-good, kind-of-out-there woman won’t save Adam from his deleterious impulses—to the point where one anxiously wonders whether Sara will need to be saved from him.
“I would hope that all three of the major characters, even though they’re very different from the average reader and from me, will evoke sympathy—I mean, that’s the whole point of [fiction], that you should understand their point of view and sympathize with it, even though you may not agree with it,” Boyle says.
The story hurtles toward a chilling climax—a far cry from the quietude of the novel that preceded it.
“[The Harder They Come] comes in the wake of San Miguel, which is a very hermetic book about San Miguel Island, and three women in a historical period living there, trying to scrape a living off the land,” he says. “It’s about daily life, and how static it can be. This book is a kind of response to that, in that it blows it open—it’s out in nature—there is violence. I’m always looking forward, always trying to do something I haven’t done before.”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.