Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Staff Pick: Friend of the Earth by T.C. Boyle

With the news each day documenting the mounting devastation in the Gulf of Mexico as the oil spill there continues into its third month, I find myself thinking frequently about a novel I read a few years ago.

A Friend of the Earth by T.C. Boyle imagines a future where Global Warming has had a disastrous impact on the world, and tells the story of a man who once fought to combat climate change, now living with its results. Although oil doesn't play a big part in Boyle's book, the overwhelming impact large corporations can have on ecosystems certainly does—so the novel can't help but feel topical.

Here's the description from the jacket:

"It is the year 2025. Global warming is a reality. The biosphere has collapsed and most mammals—not to mention fish, birds and frogs—are extinct. Tyrone Tierwater is eking out a bleak living in southern California, managing a pop star's private menagerie that "only a mother could love"—scruffy hyenas, jackals, warthogs, and three down-at-the-mouth lions. It wasn't always like this for Ty. Once he was a passionate environmentalist, so committed to saving the earth that he became and eco-terrorist and, ultimately, a convicted felon. As a member of the radical group Earth Forever!, he unwittingly endangered both his daughter Sierra and his wife Andrea. Now, just when he's trying to survive in world torn by obdurate storms and winnowing drought, Andrea comes back into his life."

I know, I know, it sounds too depressing—especially in the real world context I've now framed it, but in the capable hands of Boyle, it's a story that manages to be entertaining—even at times funny—while making you think about the world we too often take for granted. It's a satirical take on a tough topic. Boyle's descriptive powers are also at their peak: there are scenes in the book that are so vividly described, that a few years after reading it, they feel like personal memories.

I've been a fan of Boyle for awhile. He's a versatile author who can be serious or light—sometimes in the same book. He's quirky, with a sense of humour but not afraid to tackle big topics. He's written novels on historical personalities (The Road to Wellville is about the W.K. Kellogg, The Women is about Frank Lloyd Wright) and contemporary social issues (Friend of the Earth as noted, but also The Tortilla Curtain, which looks at the plight of Mexican illegal immigrants in the US). He's also a noted short story writer. The salon.com Readers Guide to Contemporary Authors calls Boyle "the one-man Barnum and Bailey of contemporary American Fiction, an amazingly kinetic storyteller and lover of words and language..."

T.C. Boyle's book might be a good match for fans of Sherman Alexie, another author who is frequently described as versatile and who isn't afraid to mix the political with (sometimes outlandish) humour. Tom Robbins is probably wackier than Boyle, but his books have commonalities with Boyle that give him crossover appeal. Boyle also gets spoken of as in the same school as post-modern American authors like Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon (who Boyle reports as an influence). And of course those suggestions work in the opposite direction too - if you're already a fan of T.C. Boyle but are looking for a place to look next, any of those authors could be a good choice.

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