Saturday, November 17, 2012

A Friend of the Earth by T. C. Boyle

This one has the juice. Reading A Friend of the Earth immediately after The Inner Circle is like stepping out of a funeral and directly onto a roller coaster.

But the New York Times review of the book panned it. I’m starting to read them after each book I read—curious what experts think after I have formed my own opinions. Oh, the juice is there all right. They agree. But, in the opinion of the reviewer, there is little else. No inner life of any of the characters, who are frequently dispatched with the seemingly wicked glee that Boyle brings to each hyperbolic turn of phrase.

I’m not so sure.

The protagonist is Tyrone Tierwater, an environmental activist, whose story is told in chapters that alternate time periods. Half the time we’re with him in the 1990s, when he is a middle-aged man with his second wife (Andrea), his daughter from his first marriage (Sierra), and an assembly of other “eco-warriors,” protesting and perpetrating acts of “eco-terrorism” against lumber companies in the Pacific Northwest. In one of those early scenes, they have dug a trench across one of the logging roads, filled it with wet cement, and dropped their feet into it. When the morning comes, the cement has hardened, and they have become human traffic barriers to the heavy equipment that was to be moved up the road to continue the deforestation. The lumber men, angry but undeterred, go to work with pick axes and sledge hammers to get them free.

It hurt. It hurt more than Tierwater could ever have imagined when he sank his sneakered feet into that yielding plastic medium, now hard as stone—stone, in fact—but he gritted his teeth and thought of the Mohawk. The hammers dropped again and again, the dull reverberative thump sucked up in the baffle of the trees. A crack would appear, and they’d go after it, beating a wedge loose here, levering up a section there. He tried to remain calm through all of this, tried to choke down the rage rising in his throat—passive resistance, that was the ticket, the strategy that brought the British Empire to its knees, stopped the war in Vietnam, humbled George Wallace and Bull Connor—but when his daughter let out a gasp, the smallest exhalation of pained surprise, the faintest whisper built round the thump of the hammer at her ankle, it went right to him.

This is the first clue that Sierra is something special to Tierwater and, indeed, she becomes a kind of polestar throughout the entire narrative.

The other half of the time, we’re still with Tierwater (oddly in the first person, whereas the chapters in the 1990s are told in the third person), but now it’s the 2020s, he’s a much older man, and much of the environmental apocalypse he feared in the 1990s has come to pass. Humanity trudges on, reduced from new plagues and hanging onto the edge of what was once modern society, and Tierwater is working as a kind of zookeeper for an eccentric pop star who keeps a menagerie of some of the earth’s now rarest creatures. Andrea returns after a long separation, bringing with her a writer who is working on a book about Sierra, who died years ago as a martyr to the environmental cause. We don’t know how that happened until it is revealed late in the book, and much of the chapters in the 2020s are of Tierwater remembering and reminiscing about his daughter and her special place in his movement and his heart.

Three times I went by the road I wanted and three times had to cut U-turns in a soup of mud, rock and streaming water, until finally I found the turnout where we’d parked that afternoon. It had been compacted dirt then, dusty even, but now it was like an automotive tar pit, a glowing head-lighted arena in which to race the engine and spin the tires until they stuck fast. I didn’t care. Sierra was up there on top of the ridge before me, up there in the thrashing wind, scared and lonely and for all I knew dangling from some limb a hundred an eighty feet in the air and fighting for her life. I had five beers in me, I was her father. I was going to save her.

This is from when Sierra decides to camp out on a platform high in a redwood tree, determined to stay there in protest for as long as it takes to stop the logging of those precious trees. She’s up there an unbelievable three years—while the logging goes on all around her—but it is in her airy sojourn, and Tierwater’s desperate quest for her on her first desperate night when a colossal storm hits, that we begin to see the symbolism that lies under Boyle’s high octane melodrama—the symbolism of man eternally longing for something meaningful in an indifferent world.

What was I wearing? Jeans, a sweater, an old pair of hiking boots, some kind of rain gear—I don’t remember. What I do remember is the sound of the wind in the trees, a screech of rending wood, the long crashing fall of shattered branches, the deep-throated roar of the rain as it combed the ridge and made the whole natural world bow down before it. I was ankle-deep in mud, fumbling with the switch of an uncooperative flashlight, inhaling rain and coughing it back up again, thinking of John Muir, the holy fool who was the proximate cause of all this. One foot followed the other and I climbed, not even sure if this was the right turnout or the right ridge—path? what path?—and I remembered Muir riding out a storm one night in the Sierras, thrashing to and fro in the highest branches of a tossing pine, just to see what it was like. He wasn’t trying to save anything or anybody—he just wanted to seize the moment, to experience what no one had experienced, to shout his hosannas to the god of the wind and the rain and the mad whirling rush of the spinning earth. He had joy, he had connection, he had vision and mystical reach. What he didn’t have was Black Cat malt liquor.

Here is the indifferent world in all of its primordial power—oblivious to both fools like John Muir and fools like Tyrone Tierwater.

I spat to clear my throat, hunched my shoulders and hovered over the last can. I was halfway up the ridge at that point, sure that at any moment a dislodged branch would come crashing out of the sky and pin me to the ground like a toad, and when I threw my head back to drink, the rain neat at my clenched eyelids with a steady unceasing pressure. Three long swallows and my last comfort was gone. I crushed the can and stuffed it into the pocket of the rain slicker and went on, feeling my way, the feeble beam of the flashlight all but useless in the hovering black immensity of the night. I must have been out there for hours, reading the bark like Braille, and the sad thing is I never did find Sierra’s tree. Or not that I know of. Three times that night I found myself at the foot of a redwood that might have been hers, the bark red-orange and friable in the glow of the flashlight, a slash of charred cambium that looked vaguely familiar, the base of the thing alone as wide around as the municipal wading pool in Peterskill where Sierra used to frolic with all the other four-year-olds while I sat in a row of benches with a squad of vigilant mothers and tried to read the paper with one eye. This was her tree, I told myself. It had to be.

And against that force Tierwater struggles, desperate to find the thing that will give him meaning.

Sierra!” I shouted, and the rain gave it back it back to me. “Sierra! Are you up there?”

Sadly, for Tierwater, and for the searching souls that he represents, Sierra is gone and can never return.

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