T.C. Boyle’s novels persistently measure the distance between idealists’ visions and how far human nature keeps them from the mark. As such, his work is steeped in irony and hypocrisy, from John Harvey Kellogg’s quest for clean living through breakfast cereal (among other remedies) in Boyle’s 1993 breakthrough The Road To Wellville to California hippies bringing their communal naïveté to Alaska in 2003’s superb Drop City. So it follows that his unsparing assessment of human nature would bleed into the savagery of actual nature in When The Killing’s Done, a sprawling account of rival environmental groups at war over how best to preserve endangered wildlife. As the novel unfolds, Boyle reveals a battle that isn’t just about competing philosophies, but extends into the messier business of family histories and personal animus. There’s bloodletting of many kinds in When The Killing’s Done, but no such thing as a clean shot.
Beautifully interweaving personal and ecological history with a fierce, high-stakes clash in the present, Boyle follows the drama surrounding the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara, a chain so renowned for its diversity that it’s referred to as California’s answer to the Galapagos. With human-introduced invasive species like black rats and feral pigs threatening to eradicate other animals on the islands, the National Parks Service is taking drastic action to obliterate the interlopers. Boyle introduces two formidable adversaries in Alma Boyd Takesue, a coolly rational National Parks Service biologist, and Dave LaJoy, a wealthy entrepreneur who heads up For The Protection Of Animals, a group that flatly opposes animal-killing for any purpose. As the years pass, their feud amplifies to the point where the fate of the wildlife seems almost secondary to their impulse to destroy each other.
As much as Boyle tries to hold Alma and Dave in balance, Alma’s clinical distance from a “necessary” slaughter seems far nobler and more identifiable than Dave’s reckless abandon. Dave is the worst of two worlds: a dreadlocked faux-hippie who’s made a fortune on high-end electronics, has no compunction about boorishly rejecting $300 bottles of wine, and cares about animals so long as they don’t make pockmarks on his lawn. If Boyle intended to suggest any ambiguity on whose path is wisest, he failed, but When The Killing’s Done nonetheless feels true to its characters and startlingly clear-eyed in its assessment of a tough environmental issue. The book’s strongest passages reveal a Werner Herzog-esque view of the natural and unnatural world, from predatory ravens dive-bombing flocks of sheep to the blood sport of courtroom showdowns and organized sabotage. Ideals don’t survive in those arenas; it’s kill or be killed.