Fans of The Tortilla Curtain, rejoice! T.C.Boyle returns with another contemporary take on the social novel. As usual, he does it with humor, moral ambiguity, and lively characters.
This book, though, doesn’t stop at lively. Boyle plumbs the depths of some very warped minds here. From the jungles of Costa Rica to the placid northern California countryside, readers will encounter humans doing violence to other humans for a host of reasons. Some of them have a firmer grasp on reality than others, and while the characters plainly tell how they think each violent act is justified, it is this personal and/or social justification (or lack thereof) that gives the novel its heft and meat.
The novel opens with a D.H. Lawrence quote: “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.” It is this American soul Boyle invites his readers to explore and inspect beneath the microscope of his words. The examination neatly ties the bad-boy frontiersman archetype (that darling of young men in middle school history class) and contemporary, grown-up constructions of masculinity into a tidy bow. Unlike what many readers may imagine when they think of a “social novel,” however, The Harder They Come doesn’t read as preachy. Boyle avoids easy moral or political points, raising questions about violence in our society with more subtle probing. Here, a thread of hypocrisy runs through liberal, tree-hugging baby boomers; survivalist right-wingers, and American culture at large. Boyle tugs it, turns it every which way, and sets it in the reader’s hand alive and twitching.
This is a long read, but the nuanced characters make it more than worth the effort. There are several moments in this book where one character or another approaches a fork in the road, and readers can see where each will lead, though the characters cannot. I found myself intently hoping they would do the right thing, only to realize I was no longer sure what “the right thing” meant for them any longer. That, readers, is how T.C. Boyle does a social novel.
photo credit: Jamieson Fry