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February 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
Titles similar to The Harder They Come
T. C. Boyle’s love and mastery of language are matched by a vehement imagination and a profound fascination with the glory and ruthlessness of nature and the paradoxes of humankind. How can a species be at once so brainy and so destructive? Boyle’s virtuoso short stories fill 10 volumes, and he now has 15 novels to his name, some linked to controversial historical figures, such as Alfred Kinsey in The Inner Circle (2004) and Frank Lloyd Wright in The Women (2009). Boyle is equally inspired by the struggles of less-well-known individuals, such as the hardy few who attempted to settle California’s Northern Channel Islands, the inspiration for When the Killing’s Done (2011) and San Miguel (2012).
The Harder They Come, Boyle’s latest high-adrenaline tale of American individualism gone psychopathic, is pegged to the jaw-dropping story of the original mountain man, John Colter. Recruited by Lewis and Clark, Colter was an exceptional hunter, trapper, and scout. Believed to be the first white man to have seen the wonders of Yellowstone, he became legendary for his escape from a group of riled Blackfeet in Montana, who stripped him naked, let him go, then gave chase, intending to hunt him down. But Colter ran for his life through severe cold for some 300 miles and survived.
In today’s abused and pillaged wilds of California’s Mendocino County, Adam, 25, worships Colter, and even takes his name. Prone to aberrant and violent behavior, Adam is in the grip of militant survivalist mania and raging, untreated schizophrenia. Camped out in the hills, he is growing his own medication, opium poppy.
His parents are on a cruise. When they join a group onshore in Costa Rica, three armed men surround them and demand their valuables. While the others cower, his father, Sten, a Vietnam vet and retired high-school principal, becomes so enraged, he kills one of the bandits with his bare hands.
Back in Mendocino, we meet another outlaw, one who does more harm to herself than to others. Sara is 40 or so, devoted to her dog, and supporting herself as a substitute teacher and a farrier, tending to the hoofs of the region’s horses and, in a private nature preserve for endangered African wildlife, zebras and antelopes. Sara is also a fine gardener, a darn good cook, and a rabid member of the so-called sovereign citizen movement, which considers the U.S. government illegitimate. Recklessly rebellious, Sara picks up Adam when he’s hitchhiking and seduces him.
There is no doubt that renegades Adam, Sara, and Sten are racing toward a conflagration. As the body count and public hysteria rise, an enormous manhunt is launched. Riffing on actual events, Boyle intensifies both suspense and provocation as he delves into the question of violence as an inherited malady not only within a family but throughout American society. He further widens the frame to take in the terror and environmental havoc wrought by illegal drug operations on state and federal land, the hate and hysteria aimed at undocumented immigrants, and the collision between mental instability and violent anti-government extremism. Boyle’s illumination of minds in the grip and whirl of overwhelming fear, fury, and madness as well as stubborn and courageous love blazes in its specificity and empathy.
Then there’s this seizing view of nature channeled through Adam’s poisoned senses:
“So what he did was wait while everything alive spoke to him from the deep grass and the bushes and the hollows in the dirt. . . . They were saying Make War, Not Love. Because they were at war down there, too, war that began the minute they hatched from their eggs . . . eat or be eaten and then go ahead and sing about it.”
And what might they sing? Boyle’s title leads us to reggae star Jimmy Cliff’s indelible lyrics:
Well, the oppressors are trying to keep me down
Trying to drive me underground
And they think that they have got the battle won
I say forgive them Lord, they know not what they’ve done
’Cause, as sure as the sun will shine
I’m gonna get my share now, what’s mine
And then the harder they come
The harder they fall, one and all.
HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Boyle taps into urgent national questions in a novel primed to make literary headlines as he tours the country in sync with a substantial publicity campaign.
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