Friday, June 3, 2016

Review: The Harder They Come

The Harder They Come The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There used to be a respectable class of novels in the “middlebrow” category. That is, they were works by writers who were real pros and who had something to say, but who said it without taking particular literary chances. It wasn’t an insult to call something middlebrow – the New Yorker was famously that in many circles. And I don’t mean it as an insult to call Boyle’s novels middlebrow. They’re thoughtfully and skillfully done, and they tackle significant subjects. They just don’t seem to have particularly penetrating answers to those questions. (And I’m referring here to this one and When the Killing’s Done, the only two I’ve read in the last decade or so.)

The Harder They Come sets out to interrogate where so much American rage comes from. It’s a 2015 book, and, admirably, that means it has its finger on the pulse of what’s shaping our current election.

It starts out recounting how aging Vietnam veteran Sten Stensen kills a would-be mugger while on a vacation in Costa Rica. One answer is that he has been trained as a soldier. Another is that he sees the chance to protect his wife and fellow travelers. Another, and maybe the one put forward most forcefully, is that he fears the obsolescence of old age and kills as much from being insults as being attacked.

It then asks how his son Adam can be so violent in his turn, embarking on an escalating series of angry episodes. The answer there, though, comes through pretty clearly: he’s a schizophrenic who thinks of himself as the reincarnation of an 18th century mountain man.

Each character is solidly drawn and worth pondering, but neither comes forward as quite a satisfactory answer to why our culture feels such rage at this moment. Each has a deeply personal reason for his rage, but neither is responding to our cultural moment or even to one another. Adam’s girlfriend, a fierce radical libertarian, is angry and occasionally wild, but even she seems as much emotionally disturbed as reacting to some broad cultural misgiving.

If all of that sounds disappointing, it shouldn’t. The story moves along with some real depth because it is echoing those uncomfortable questions. Its unhappy characters come to life, and react in sometimes moving ways. This is a solid book in every way, and Boyle remains a pro. I can’t help preferring the more ambitious Brief History of Seven Killings or the masterful Narrow Road to the Deep North – both books that seem to me better at interrogating the nature and afterglow of violence – but I’m glad we have Boyle who can so reliably set out questions of the American character. It may take me a while to get back to him, but I will.

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