The Harder They Come: A Novel

By T. C. Boyle

(Ecco, $27.99, 400 pages)

Who is this author?

First, let’s get the name right, if we can: He was born Thomas John Boyle in 1948 and is known as Tom (or just T.) Coraghessan Boyle and T.C. Boyle. An author who has published 14 novels and 10 collections, comprising more than 100 stories, Boyle has won several major literary awards, as well as a devoted audience. He also is a distinguished professor of English at the University of Southern California and lives in Santa Barbara, Calif.

What is this book about?

Three complex characters collide in this thriller set in contemporary times. They are Sten, a father in his 70s who was a Marine in Vietnam and later a high school principal and becomes a hero for killing a thief in Costa Rico while on a trip; his schizophrenic son Adam, who identifies with Lewis and Clark guide John Colter, and Adam’s lover Sara, an older woman deeply involved in the survivalist and ultra-rightwing sovereign citizen movement. As the three Californians’ lives grow more entangled, they spiral into violence fueled by their various political and personal obsessions. This is an unflinching look at right-wing paranoia, violence, the American myth of the West and the desire for freedom at any cost: all topics increasingly in the news and in our communities.

Why you’ll like it:

Boyle is a masterful writer who creates hard-to-forget characters and is drawn to stories of man vs. nature and man vs. his own imperfect nature.

The Barnes & Noble Review describes him well: “Practically from the start of his fiction career in 1980, T. Coraghessan Boyle has been an outlier in American letters — not so much its Bad Boy or Angry Young Man as its Weird Uncle, spinning tales of pot growers and communes and survivalists and man-chimpanzee bonding at a nearly Oatesian pace. Like another California-based Weird Uncle, William T. Vollmann, he’s long written about the ways mankind’s feral instincts collide with the hubristic urge to bring nature to heel. Unlike Vollmann, though, Boyle has stuck exclusively with fiction — the long list of titles in the front matter of The Harder They Come includes no reportage. He’s remarkably determined to use the tools of imagination alone to critique postlapsarian humanity in its untamed — and often absurd — state. This frees him to be wild himself, though in this case his free-range instinct has its imperfections.”

What others are saying:

In The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani writes:  “. . . stunning…The Harder They Come…is very much a showcase for all of Mr. Boyle’s storytelling talents. It’s gripping, funny and melancholy, and opens out from the miseries of a father and his troubled son into a resonant meditation on the American frontier ethos and propensity for violence—a dramatic novelistic rendering, in many ways, of the scholar Richard Slotkin’s pioneering studies on the mythology of the American West…From the novel’s thrilling set piece of a start…to its pensive conclusion, The Harder They Come is a masterly—and arresting—piece of storytelling, arguably Mr. Boyle’s most powerful, kinetic novel yet. “

The New York Times Book Review says: “The Harder They Come…takes on the paranoia of the far-right sovereign citizen movement and off-the-grid/mountain-man survivalism, as well as more mainstream American notions of independence. This could easily have been an opportunity for a writer of Boyle’s comic gifts to go full-tilt satirical, but Boyle takes a darker and more restrained approach. He has written a compelling, complex and intimate novel about three particular people in a specific time and place, a novel that tells us something unnerving about certain precincts of the American Now.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “Boyle’s  hypnotic narrative probes the complexities of heroism, violence, power, and resistance. At its heart are ex-Marine and retired school principal “Sten” Stensen and his schizophrenic son, Adam, who arms himself against shadowy “hostiles” and identifies with heroic 19th-century wilderness guide John Colter. On vacation in Costa Rica, Sten kills a gunman attempting to rob his tour group. Back home in Mendocino, Calif., he becomes an instant celebrity for his act of vigilante justice, and he is drawn into a citizen brigade whose mission is to protect nearby forests from the South American drug cartels that despoil the land. Meanwhile, Adam forms a tenuous, lust-fueled bond with anti-government activist Sara Jennings. Driven further into delusion by her brushes with the law and his physical confrontation with his father, Adam flees for his secret camp in the woods; when one of the citizen patrollers challenges him, Adam shoots that man, and soon another. As the manhunt intensifies, Sten realizes his son’s involvement and his own inability to change his son’s fate. Written with both clarity and compassion, each of the novel’s characters inhabits a rich and convincing private world. As they traverse a landscape none of them control, their haunting stories illuminate the violent American battle with otherness. “

Library Journal’s starred review says: “An elderly California couple’s vacation cruise is turned upside down when bandits attack their party at a Central American nature preserve. Former high school principal and Vietnam vet Sten Stensen reacts with unexpected fury when an armed thief approaches him, strangling him to death. While viewed as a hero back home, Sten’s disturbed by the violence that’s visited his life and will deal with more as the mental state of his emotionally troubled adult son, Adam, grows worse. A paranoid survivalist who fashions himself after 19th-century mountain man John Colter, Adam has taken up with another disquieted soul, Sara, a local farrier and proponent of radical right-wing ideas. A fight with his parents after they sell his late grandmother’s cabin, where he has been living, sends him spiraling downward. He retreats to a deep-woods bunker with his weapons where his shooting of a perceived “alien” will set off a massive manhunt. VERDICT Inspired by a true story (and also echoing recent events in Pennsylvania), Boyle tellingly explores the anger, paranoia, and violence lurking in the shadowlands of the American psyche. A powerful and profoundly unsettling tale.”

Kirkus Reviews says: “Violence corrodes the ideal of freedom in an ambitious novel that aims to illuminate the dark underbelly of the American dream. In the prolific Boyle’s latest, the estrangement between a father and son provides the plot’s pivot. The father is 70-year-old Sten Stensen, a Vietnam Marine vet and later a high school principal, whose military training comes in handy when he’s among a group ambushed during a cruise. Three armed robbers threaten the group, and Sten kills one of them. He initially fears he might face criminal prosecution in Central America but subsequently finds himself hailed as a hero. In his mind, “He’d done what anybody would have done, anybody who wasn’t a natural-born victim, anyway.” There’s a hint of xenophobia in his attitude, a dismissal of a foreign culture where life is cheap and values ambiguous and where expediency has him cooperating with officials who let him know he has done them a favor. Sten has never been a hero to his son, Adam, a troubled youth since his days in his dad’s high school, now a self-styled mountain man on the outskirts of Fort Bragg, California. In Adam, Sten sees the chickens coming home to roost, the propensity for violence that they share twisted by drugs and paranoia. Adam has become involved with a right-wing anarchist 15 years his senior, who seems to be in the novel mainly to distinguish her misguided politics from his insanity. And even Adam and Sten function more as types and symbols than individuals, though Boyle remains a master at sustaining narrative momentum as the sense of foreboding darkens and deepens. Boyle’s vision and ambition remain compelling, though his characters here seem like plot devices.”

When is it available?

This engrossing novel is at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch.

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