T.C. Boyle’s new novel “When the Killing’s Done” is a vivid but flawed work. Mr. Boyle brings his unparalleled descriptive powers and exquisite narrative pacing to bear in this story of a National Park Service scientist who seeks to restore the environmental balance on California’s Channel Islands, off the coast of Santa Barbara. Alma Boyd Takesue has a long and tragic connection with the Islands, and her quest to rid them of invasive brown rats and wild pigs can be seen as an act of personal purification and redemption. In this effort she is opposed by Dave LaJoy, owner of high-end electronics stores in and around Santa Barbara, who has taken up environmental activism and has plenty of resources to throw into his fight. Coincidentally, LaJoy—who finds little joy in anything and is in fact filled with rage, fury, and hate—once had a date with Takesue, whom he met in a folk music club. It was a disaster in which LaJoy called a $300 bottle of wine “vinegar,” humiliating the maître d’ and putting an abrupt end to the date.
And here is my problem with LaJoy: his unaccountable behavior doesn’t add up. (Who would act like such a jerk on a first date?) When LaJoy goes to Home Depot, we learn that he “loathes places like this—as a small-business owner, he ought to, what with Costco and Best Buy and all the rest undercutting him twenty-four/seven…” But his visits to local restaurants include at best “an unfortunate debate with the waiter” and open cursing and berating of the staff at worst. He threatens to cancel a check to his landscaper and generally bullies everyone. This sort of carrying on is implausible on the part of a small-business owner, whose personal reputation and connections within the community are paramount. Following the Golden Rule isn’t in LaJoy’s plans, though. He has to be dragged out of a public meeting conducted by Takesue, and we presume it is he who writes the racial slur on the car she arrived in. He leads criminal expeditions to the Islands and faces legal consequences, which certainly must be known throughout the community. You’d think someone in the downtown business owners association would take the poor fellow aside and have a word with him.
Yet after leading a doomed foray that results in the death of a college student, he faces neither social nor commercial consequences, and of course in his total selfishness he diminishes the moral ones. LaJoy resembles characters in Boyle’s early novels “Budding Prospects” and “World’s End.” They similarly had a bug up their ass, and it was never clear why. For all of the care the author lavishes on his fascinating and detailed descriptions, for all the erudition he brings to his work, he seems arbitrary in creating a wholly impetuous villain. It just doesn’t add up.