Ecco, April 2015
Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
A few years ago, I met T.C. Boyle at his home in Santa Barbara to interview him for issue #4 of The Coffin Factory. At the end of our talk—before I embarrassed myself by almost falling down his stairs—I asked Boyle what he was working on, and while he didn’t want to reveal too much, he said that after just publishing a book from a woman’s point of view, he would be writing “a hairy-chested man novel” set in Northern California. The Harder They Come is that novel, and while it reads like a breeze, being one of Boyle’s very best, and is indeed set in the pot-fragrant forests of Mendocino County, I’m not sure if it’s as manly as he originally intended.
The novel’s two main characters are seventy-year-old Sten Stenson and his twenty-five year-old son, Adam. It begins with a scene in Costa Rica, where Sten and his wife Carolee are on a cruise. Their tour is robbed at gunpoint, and Sten, an ex-Marine and retired high school principal, kills one of the robbers with his bare hands. He’s a hairy-chested man’s man, yes sir, but Adam seems to outdo his father. Calling himself “Colter,” after John Colter, a historical mountain man who traveled with Lewis and Clark, Adam is a militant survivalist who thrives in the woods. Hard as rocks and always armed with an automatic rifle and a knife, Adam has set up an opium-growing operation, with which he hopes to set himself up for life. He’s disturbed, dangerous, and paranoid. But the strongest character in the novel is Sara, a forty-something horse-hoofer, margarita-drinker, and Adam’s unlikely girlfriend. It’s with Sara where Boyle’s prose really sings.
Fully capturing the anti-authoritarian spirit of the novel, Sara says she doesn’t have “a contract” with the police, and so she refuses to cooperate with them when they pull her over and politely ask for her license and registration. She’s arrested, but doesn’t show up for her court case, and she and Adam bust her dog out of quarantine. After all, she was just traveling on the public roads in her personal property—no, she wasn’t wearing her seatbelt, but “seatbelt laws were just another contrivance of the U.S. Illegitimate Government of America the Corporate that had given up the gold standard back in 1933 and pledged its citizens as collateral so it could borrow and keep borrowing.” Sara thinks she has no need for government: “They were all just criminals anyway, every politician bought and sold by the special interests and the cops nothing more than their private army.” Passages of this sort abound, with rants against taxes, social security, the Fed, and the Fourteenth Amendment, and every time it’s like, Yeah, man, yeah. Stick it to ‘em, T.C.
Dude’s got a bone to pick, and he picks it clean—he tears it down, but what we’re left with is harsh reality. For no matter how unjust or absurd or fascist our system is, it’s still our system, and it will dominate us with overwhelming violence if we refuse to obey it. Despite the democratic rhetoric of our founding documents, might is right, here just like anywhere. At the end, Sten, a man capable of violence, understands that “violence didn’t work because it just provoked resentment and resentment led to more violence, a whole downward spiral of it.” And so it seems that Boyle’s too wise to really go manly, for how manly is a man who renounces violence? Then again, it’s harder to be wise than it is to be manly.