Review: When the Killing’s Done by T.C. Boyle

Even when his subjects are arcane, for instance, historical novels about the life and work of Alfred Kinsey (The Inner Circle), or the women in Frank Lloyd Wright’s life (The Women), I can always find something to love in TC Boyle’s work. He is a master writer of accessible literary fiction: deep, thought-provoking stories that are readable, haunting, and often wryly humorous.

When the Killing’s Done, his latest novel, centers on the flora and fauna of the Channel Islands, a grouping of islands just off of Santa Barbara. Sound dull? Heck, no. Add in a colorful cast of environmentalists, hunters, scientists, protesters, government officials, and various others just along for the ride and this becomes a brilliantly told cautionary tale about how human interference, despite its best intentions, can seriously impact our ecosystems.

The human drama circles around Dave LaJoy, a local business owner and environmentalist, who is in desperate need of anger management, and Alma Boyd Takasue, a seemingly uptight biologist who works for the National Park Service. As we learn in the first chapter, Alma is the granddaughter of a woman who became shipwrecked on one of those islands.

Alma’s aim is to return the islands to their original state by “controlling” various species that have been introduced by man. This includes, at various times, a rampant overgrowth of rats, golden eagles, fennel, and wild boar. Dave’s goal is to thwart the scientists and stop the killing. But like the coyote in the Road Runner cartoons, he is frustrated at every turn. Eventually, his efforts end in disaster.

My only quibble—and a minor one—with this otherwise excellent work is that an intriguing scenario set up in the first chapter is not resolved. Is it important to know that Alma’s grandmother was shipwrecked on the islands, therefore setting up her fascination with them? Sure. But why leave me wondering about the backstory between her grandmother’s two male companions, who seemed to be locked in an epic struggle that was partially responsible for the wreck?

Or maybe he’s got a sequel in the works…

While this isn’t my favorite Boyle novel, it’s still very good. Read it for the beautiful language, the depth of detail, and his wry and quirky sense of humor.

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