Monday, April 18, 2016

Book Review: The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle

The Harder They Come

Author: T.C. Boyle
Publisher: HarperCollins
Date of Pubication: March 31, 2015
Pages: 400 (E-book edition) 

     T. C. Boyle is a prolific writer of novels and short stories and a Professor of English at the University of Southern California.  He has written historical novels with quirky central characters including The Road to Wellville (John Harvey Kellogg, physician and inventor of corn flakes),  Riven Rock (Stanley McCormick, heir to the Cyrus McCormick fortune), The Women (Frank Lloyd Wright) and The Inner Circle (Alfred Kinsey).  He has also written novels which focus on major societal issues including illegal immigration (The Tortilla Curtain), identity theft (Talk, Talk) and global warming and environmental destruction (A Friend of the Earth).  The Harder They Come falls into this latter category.  This ambitious book takes a hard look at our country's culture of violence and factors which contribute to it.

     The riveting first section of the book introduces 70 year old Sten Stenson.  Sten is a jaded Viet Nam war veteran and retired high school principal.  He hates retirement: he describes it as "pre-death". Sten reluctantly agrees to take his wife on a Caribbean cruise which the author makes feel like Dante's ninth circle of hell.  Sten makes international headlines by violently thwarting an attempted robbery during a shore excursion.  

     He returns to his California home as a reluctant hero.  Seemingly everyone knows his name and strangers buy him drinks.  Everyone loves Sten except for his son Adam.  Adam is like the preacher's kid who hates church:  he was constantly in trouble in school and a total embarrassment to his father. As a young adult Adam's poor choices and increasing anti-social behavior widen the chasm between father and son.

     The third character is Sara, a thirty-something veterinary assistant and radical right-wing isolationist.  She becomes romantically involved with Adam through a very odd course of events.  She eventually plays the role of enabler as Adam spirals out of control.

     The plot careens forward towards a catastrophic ending as Adam becomes more obviously paranoid and psychotic, Sara steadfastly remains in a state of denial and Sten becomes more and more frustrated at his lack of impact on his son.

     The book is told in the first person by all three characters.  The writing is superb.  The author blames nature and nurture, as well as cultural and societal pressures all as equal culprits in creating the violent anti-social Adam.  The author is short on solutions, but this is a novel and not an editorial.  I found The Harder They Come both entertaining and thought provoking.  It is yet another excellent effort by T. C. Boyle.

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