T.C. Boyle is usually merciless towards his characters, giving a variety of viewpoints an equal opportunity skewering. This time out, I felt he betrayed a little twinge of empathy in his description of some admittedly extreme characters. He doesn’t idealize them — far from it — but he makes their obsessions understandable, if tiresome, self-destructive and dangerous.
The main characters are Sten Stenson, retired school principal and Vietnam vet, his wife Carolee, their schizophrenic son Adam, and his much older love interest Sara. Sten, while with a group touring Costa Rica, kills an armed would-be robber, and comes home to be treated like a hero. His son, meanwhile, has come unglued, spending hours roaming the redwoods with a rifle, attempting to grow opium poppies, and channeling John Colter, a long-dead scout for the Lewis and Clark expedition. Adam joins forces with Sara, who refuses to recognize the authority of any government entity, causing her endless run-ins with the police and Animal Control. There’s just enough political common ground and loneliness between these two for them to temporarily overlook their differences and become a couple. Adam has recently come of age, which legally prevents his parents from finding out just how far he’s slipped mentally. Sara becomes his caretaker as well as his lover, but her willful blindness keeps her from seeing how far gone he is. Here’s a sample of their limited communication:
“You going out in the woods?” she asked, though she already knew the answer — and knew too not to pry. He had something out there, a bunker, a fortress — it could have been a treehouse, for all he let on — and it occupied him all day every day. Or maybe he was hiking.. Maybe that was it. Whatever it was, it sure kept him in shape.
He didn’t answer. Didn’t even bother to nod. It was morning and in the morning he didn’t have much to say. They were close at night, in the dark, very close, but what they were doing together didn’t need words. When he’d been drinking, which was a pretty regular thing — daily, that is, and she joined him because why not? — he’d open up to her as much as he was capable of. He wasn’t a talker. That was all right with her. She could talk for two.
Add to the mix multiple clandestine marijuana growing operations in the forest, run by Mexican illegals, and the resulting vigilante sentiment from the white people in town, and you have the makings of a riveting tragedy.
author photo: Karen Robinson