In his previous novels and short stories, master storyteller T. C. Boyle has frequently explored the perplexing interactions, even the violent confrontations, that can ensue when human civilization collides with the world of wild animals. In his stories, predator and prey relationships are often turned upside down, humans create artificial connections with the animal kingdom in an attempt to recapture a simpler life, and animals inevitably have a way of coming out on top, regardless of the best-laid plans of humans.
In WHEN THE KILLING'S DONE, Boyle thoughtfully develops these ideas and many others, focusing his geographical interest on the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara but broadening his thematic and philosophical concerns to encompass truly provocative issues that touch on natural history, ecology, environmentalism, animal rights, and more.
At the center of Boyle's swirling narrative are two figures on opposite sides of a major philosophical divide. Alma Boyd Takesue is an unlikely spokesperson, a biologist for the National Park Service who gets dragged into the limelight after members of a radical animal rights group, For the Protection of Animals, protest her proposal to eradicate the invasive rat population on one of the Channel Islands. Rats, Alma argues, are a non-native species, brought to the islands by humans and now threatening the very survival of many of the island's rare bird species. To restore the island's natural balance, the rats should be exterminated, as should the wild pigs that terrorize another island.
The charismatic, temperamental figure at the center of the FPA is Dave LaJoy, a wealthy businessman turned vegetarian and activist. LaJoy's argument is that any killing of animals by humans is outright wrong, that nature should be allowed to take its course, that it's hubristic for humans to be the ones to decide which species should live and which should die. Accompanied by his activist folk singer girlfriend Anise (who also happens to have been the last child raised on Santa Cruz island), LaJoy wages an outright war with the National Park Service, the Nature Conservancy, and others who support Alma's position regarding the future of the Channel Islands.
Boyle sagely situates Alma and Dave's conflict within not only the island's natural history but also within human history; in addition to Anise's unusual upbringing, Boyle also references Alma's grandmother's tale of survival on the islands following a shipwreck. Clearly the main players' agendas here are far from uncomplicated; likewise, their motivations are often confused and contradictory, riddled with ironies and outright hypocrisies that Boyle cleverly broadcasts to the reader but that remain opaque to the characters themselves. Virtually every character winds up making personal choices at odds with their public, philosophical positions, in a technique that highlights not only the complexity of the issues at hand but also the difficulty in defining and defending ideals.
Who decides on the future for nature? Boyle asks. Humans, or the animals themselves? Are some species (humans included) superior to others? Aren't humans the most invasive species of all? And, in the end, who will have the final say? Despite the at-times bloody human battles waged in the pages of WHEN THE KILLING'S DONE, it's clear that there's a larger conflict going on, one as old as nature itself and one that will persist long after humans' time on earth has run its natural course.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on March 28, 2011
When the Killing's Done