Monday, April 22, 2013

*A Friend of the Earth, by T.C. Boyle

Penguin, 2000
349 pp

Today is Earth Day, and this year's theme is "The Face of Climate Change."  T.C. Boyle's A Friend of the Earth is set during a time when the severe effects of  climate change have become a reality, so it's actually appropriate to begin here.

A Friend of the Earth is quite different from many environmentally- or eco-based novels I've read.  While some of the normal dystopian scenarios are in place (the harsh, devastating effects of climate change, deforestation, worldwide animal extinction are but three),  and the author in his own way lets his readers know that there is little to no hope for the future, this book is also very different. While it makes you ponder the inevitability of bleak times to come, it also makes you laugh as Mr. Boyle puts irony ahead of heavy-handedness or preaching -- since, as the main character notes, it's much too late for that.  And that's a good thing:  thinking about the earth's environmental future and our place in it is often downright depressing. 

Tyrone (Ty) Tierwater works as the caretaker of a private collection of animals. Ty, in his 70s, has a good gig  working for a millionaire pop star who's been trying to save some of the last critically-endangered animals before they're gone for good. In 2025, floods, rain, heat and nightmarish winds are the norm. Ty lives a simple life, taking care of the animals and then going out for the occasional sake (rice wine that is the only alcohol available at the local bar since rice is the only crop which can survive in these conditions), but that all changes when one day, without warning, his ex-wife Andrea shows up with news that a writer is interested in penning the story of their daughter Sierra. But it's not the only reason she's there -- she has plans to restart  Earth Forever!, the environmental-activism group they were part of in the past, "for the survivors."  Andrea's return is what prompts the story of Ty's former days as a monkeywrenching member of  Earth Forever!, complete with berets, raised fists and acts of ecotage, at a time when "to be a friend of the earth, you have to be an enemy of the people."  As the narrative goes back in time, it reveals not only the motivations behind Ty's actions (which may not be quite what you'd expect),  but also  how eventually he came to sacrifice much more than he bargained for in the process of doing his part in saving the planet.  The book also has a major focus beyond the environment, that of a father's love for his daughter.  This is only a quick rundown, but it's a wonderful book, much less heavy-handed than I expected from its beginning.

One of the messages to be found here is that we're all involved in a paradoxical relationship with our planet's future: progress  gives us the little gadgets and gizmoes we love and demand, but at the same time we have to realize that many of our consumer habits are partially to blame for the planet's woes;  we also care about what happens to the environment, but at the same time few people these days are going to go live completely off the grid in total tune with nature -- or, as in the novel, they try it and come right back to the real world.   It's all about compromise.   These points are illustrated amply and ironically throughout this novel, which I only put down reluctantly when forced by outside circumstances to do so.  It's pleasantly much different than what I thought it would be, and I recommend it highly. 

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