September 19, 2008
Friend or Foe
by Natalia Jaster
A couple of weeks ago, I took T.C. Boyle’s literary novel, A Friend of the Earth, off the shelf and reread it for the second time. Initially, I was a bit worried that the story wouldn’t engage me the way it had before. With some books, I lose my original impression of them, especially if a lot of time has passed. With other books, I remember why I enjoyed them in the first place, or I rediscover the stories through a different lens, with a different perspective. And I can’t explain why some books are compatible with this experience and others are not.
In this case, I found that I appreciated Boyle’s novel even more than I did during my first reading.
The story takes place in the year 2025 in California. Global warming has taken over and the environment—the flora, the fauna, the landscape—is feeble at best. The main character, Tyrone Tierwater, works an animal keeper for a former pop star, managing the musician’s private menagerie of mammals that have survived extinction— including a Patagonian fox named Petunia and a hyena named Lily—and now live on his estate. Melancholy and sarcastic, yet tolerant of his fate, Ty is staggered and suspicious when, after twenty years, his ex-wife, Andrea, calls him unexpectedly and asks to meet. From there, the book dives into the consequent events following her reentry into Ty’s life. The novel jumps back and forth between the present and the distant past, when Ty and Andrea were members of a radical environmental group called Earth Forever! and Ty was an on-again/off-again eco-criminal obsessed with defending the plight of nature by terrorizing the logging and construction industry.
From witnessing these two characters cementing their feet into the ground to protect trees from being cut down, to living in the forest for a month without one manmade object, to watching their daughter setting up camp in a tree 180 feet in the air in protest, the story is unpredictable, dark, funny, daunting, bizarre, shocking, tragic and tender. The characters are hypocritical, charming, vulnerable, sneaky, sympathetic and oftentimes amusingly foolish.
It’s a really cool read.
And the book doesn’t stress so much that global warming, deforestation and animal extinction are increasing problems to consider—it trusts that readers already know this. Instead, it explores our relationship to nature and our motives when acting on its behalf. What does it mean to be an environmentalist? Are one’s actions sincere and selfless? Or is there another agenda behind them? What does being a friend of the earth entail? And how far should one go?
Most importantly, the story asks how a person becomes “a friend of the earth” without becoming an “enemy of the people.”
T.C. Boyle, A Friend of the Earth
Penguin Books, 2001: 368pp
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