T. C. Boyle doesn’t write the rockin’ rollin’ genre fiction I usually devour. I do like his writing, though. His short stories are a treat. Practically three dimensional. His The Road to Wellville is one of my all-time favorites. I’m not too sure about When The Killing’s Done. The writing is magnificent, as always. There’s just so damned much of it. Now, I’m not complaining about a big, lush, complex novel. Sometimes that’s exactly what I’m craving. Crammed into this one novel are shipwrecks (several), animal rights activists, family tragedies (several), invasive species introduced into fragile habitats (several), sheep ranching, hog killing, government intervention, and history (a lot). Boyle examines each aspect of the story in depth.
“In fact, when the brown tree snake reached the island, it found itself in an ophidian paradise. The only other species of snake on Guam, an innocuous thing the size of an earthworm, was no competition at all, and there were no predators to limit its numbers. The food supply, consisting of some eighteen species of birds found nowhere else in the world, was rich and abundant, and the birds, in common with other insular species, suffered the sort of naivete to predation that had doomed the dodo and its ilk. Boiga irregularis lives in equilibrium with other species in its native environment, and isn’t particularly impressive or dangerous as a snakes go. For one thing, its venom, distributed through fangs located in the back of its throat, is relatively mild and only marginally a threat to humans. For another, it is nocturnal and thus rarely seen, and so reedy– no thicker around than a man’s finger until it reaches a length of three feet or so– as to pale in comparison with some of the snakes of the continental tropics, the cobras, boomslangs, mambas and water moccasins that slither through the herpetophobe’s nightmares.”
That’s how it goes through the entire novel, each aspect lovingly, exhaustively examined and described. I would have liked the book a lot more if it had been non-fiction instead of a novel. The non-fiction elements were a lot more interesting than the fictional characters, who, as per usual with Boyle’s work, were obsessed almost to the point of insanity, except for a few who were actually insane. I found myself growing impatient with the characters, wanting them to hurry up with their little dramas, so I could get back to the interesting stuff about rats and ecosystems and the history of the islands off the coast of California.
As a think-piece, this novel is a must-read. Boyle pulls out all the stops to show how people damage the environment not necessarily through maliciousness, but through carelessness, thoughtlessness and misplaced good intentions. The worst offenders can be those who believe they can fix the damage once it’s done.
When the Killing’s Done won’t end up on my favorites list. I do know some people who’ll find the subject matter fascinating, and a few others who’ll benefit from the message it contains. Just so everyone is clear this isn’t a rockin’ rollin’ strictly entertaining type of read.