Monday, 27 July 2015

The Harder They Come by TC Boyle Review

The Harder They Come revolves around three characters: Sten, a 70 year-old retired school principal and Vietnam vet; his mentally unbalanced son, Adam, 25 years old; and 40 year old paranoid libertarian Sara. Set in present-day Fort Bragg, California, the novel sees Adam’s mind slowly unravelling as he becomes more and more obsessed with historical figure John Colter, a scout on the Lewis and Clark expedition. Adam’s untreated schizophrenia, exacerbated by liquor and hard drugs, can only end one way once he grabs his gun and heads into the woods.

I’m going to avoid spoilers because it’ll be a more powerful read if you go into it blind. The Harder They come is a brilliant novel. Like many of TC Boyle’s books, this one explores a number of issues, though violent American culture is at the forefront. Not just the United States’ gun culture (and yes he is rightfully critical of it), but the legacy of violence that reaches back to the early days of the Republic.

The Colter flashbacks to the beginning of the 19th century remind us that Americans were once the underdogs and the Native Americans were dominant – a fact that would swiftly change as the century wore on. Sten is a veteran of Vietnam, a theatre of war that was an extension of American Imperialism from the last century, and Sara is extremely belligerent towards local and federal authority for, as she sees it, limiting her freedoms as a citizen. Adam, the youngest character in the cast, embodies all of those characters as a terrifying avatar of confused, but very real, carnage – a modern day wannabe mountain man waging his forest warfare on the government.

For a relatively limited cast, Boyle covers an enormous number of subjects, weaving them into his narrative effortlessly: Mexican drug manufacturers destroying rural California, contemporary mental issues and their treatment (as well as lack of), gun control, extreme right wing politics, as well as more broad, traditional subjects like the differences between generations, fathers and sons, and the complexities of love.

The chapters alternate between Sten, Sara and Adam, and the only part of the book I didn’t totally enjoy were some of Adam’s chapters once he loses it. Boyle writes these adopting the viewpoint of a paranoid schizophrenic off of his prescribed medicine and self-medicating with numerous illegal drugs (cocaine, meth, opium). These chapters are appropriately rambling, circuitous, and diverge at peculiar tangents, as this is supposedly Adam’s disordered mind, but it still made for some uninteresting passages. That and the ending – Boyle going on for just a few more pages than he should have.

Otherwise, Boyle’s writing, characterisations, set pieces? Superb. Boyle always produces outstanding prose and his storytelling is rich and gripping. Each character is their own person with their own voice and world and the plot unfolds beautifully and tragically. It’s a fantastic story – a real literary thriller - from a modern master. The Harder They come is another excellent addition to this tremendously gifted writer’s remarkable oeuvre.

(The novel is inspired by the 2011 case of Aaron Bassler however if you’re planning on reading this book, I would recommend not looking up his details until afterwards as Boyle parallels Bassler’s last few weeks with Adam’s very closely. For that matter, if you don’t know much about John Colter, I wouldn’t look him up until after either – the Colter passages will be much more exciting as a result.)

The Harder They Come

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