The Harder they Come

haderThe Harder They Come
by T.C. Boyle
2015 / 400 pages
read by Graham Hamilton (A)
rating 8.5 / contemp. fiction

I’ve been reading Boyle since his amazing “Tortilla Curtain” in  1996 or so and by now I’ve read most of his books –  missing 6 out of 15.   I’ve also read his humungous book of short stories – 1998 and the occasional magazine short story.

For an epigraph Boyle uses, “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer. It has never yet melted.”  It perfectly captures the spirit of the characters in the book.

Sten Stensen and his wife Caroline are on vacation in Costa Rica when the little group of seniors with whom they’re touring is accosted by thugs.   Well – Sten does what any good old aging but independent-thinking Vietnam vet would do,  he gets the leader in a chokehold and, knowing exactly what he’s doing, kills him.  And then he’s suddenly a hero.  A hero who is a bit paranoid, angry and very tired.


Mendocino County, CA

Back in Mendocino County, California,  where the Stensons are from, there’s Sara Hovarty, 40-ish,  a divorced animal lover and radical US national,  a “sovereign citizen,”  who has “no contract”  with the US government.  So she won’t wear her seatbelt and her license plates are out of date.  Stopped by police Sara makes her point of not showing identification  and lands in jail where her friend Christabel has to get her out on bail and there is more trouble with the car and then Sara’s beloved dread-locked dog is impounded.

A bit later in the same area,  the young Adam Stensen,  son of Sten and Carolyn,  is hitchhiking to Ukiah when Sara picks him up.  Adam’s car has been impounded.  Adam is a very troubled young man of 23,  but the two have a shared hatred for the police.  And they each have an errand in Ukiah.  Adam prefers to be called Colter (for John Colter, considered to be the first mountain man) and seems to live in his head a lot.  He looks sexy to Sara though,  and their shared obsessive anger at the US government bonds them.


Mendocino County

And therein lies an incredibly suspenseful tale, especially in the hands of Boyle who goes right on inside the heads of Adam/Colter,  his father,  and Sara with precision and enough depth to make this story really believable.  It’s all third person narration,  but a very close third person point of view in each case.

Dana Spiotta (Eat the Document, 2006) writing for the New York Times said,  “Boyle is brilliant throughout at ­using setting as an engine of character.”  And yeah, buddy,  an edit shows up with Adam looking to live in the world of John Colter – wilderness and freedom.  He’s also on the lookout for aliens and has some rather strange ideas.

Bottom line –  yes!   🙂

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