The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle, Ecco, 385 pages ($27.99). “It wasn’t as if he was merely applying pressure to the man flailing in his arms – he wasn’t doing that, no, he was immobilizing him, because that was what he’d been trained to do and he had no choice in the matter. It was beyond reason now, autonomous, dial it up, semper fi.”
The man in Sten Stenson’s 70-year-old arms wound up dead, strangled to death by Stenson after attempting a robbery of Stenson – a former school principal and Marine who’d served in Vietnam – and his fellow tourists in Costa Rica.
That is the act of violence on Page 18 that begins the new novel by one writer who is, by now, one of our more gifted and gripping realists, T.C. Boyle (otherwise known as T. Coraghessan Boyle). Boyle explains that “The Harder They Come” (named, yes, after the Jimmy Cliff song) was “inspired by two stories reported in the news which provided the germ of the idea of examining the anti-authoritarianism and violence that are integral to our character (as indicated in the epigraph from D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Studies in Classic American Literature’: ‘The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer. It has not yet melted.’) The first was the report of an elderly man attacked in Central America while on a tour with a busload of his coevals; the second was the case of a schizophrenic young man (a shooter) whose delusions caused him to murder two strangers and take to the wilderness around Fort Bragg, California, resulting in the biggest manhunt in California history.” When Stenson returns home, acclaimed a hero, it is his unbalanced son Adam who is eventually the one who causes the massive manhunt in this examination of American violence sans B.S. Mailerian metaphysics.
Because Boyle’s in-laws were Western New Yorkers, he was a common sight in the ’70s at Buffalo concerts and in Hertel Avenue diners. He has since become one of our most prolific and distinctive writers – not least because he has seen one of his least likely books adapted into a movie (“The Road to Wellville”) rather than say, his first, the epic “Water Music.” Here, it seems to me, is a T.C. Boyle novel that would make a great movie. – Jeff Simon