Plugs of Muscle

Joanna Kavenna

  • A Friend of the Earth by T.C. Boyle
    Bloomsbury, 275 pp, £15.99, October 2000, ISBN 0 7475 4753 X

The point at which the consequences of global warming will become inescapable is often placed around 2050. By then the world’s present population will, according to some estimates, have doubled. T.C. Boyle, in his new, provocative novel, A Friend of the Earth, brings Doomsday forward to 2025. It matters little what the oil-powered President does now, Boyle suggests: time has run out – no further preaching and petitioning can undo the devastation. The recklessness of corporations, the cowardice of governments, the myopia of the general public have ruined the planet. A Friend of the Earth skitters between the crucial ‘last chance’ decades in Boyle’s doom-teleology – the 1980s and 1990s – and 2025, when the former deserts of California have been freak-weathered into swamps, traffic inches along over-burdened freeways and the bedraggled remnants of the Earth’s wildlife have been repatriated from their now inhospitable natural habitats to the safari park of an ageing pop star millionaire, Maclovio Pulchris.

Our Tiresias of the global meltdown is Tyrone Tierwater, Boyle’s artificially regenerated 75-year-old narrator-malcontent, who is spending the apocalypse in a leaking shed in Pulchris’s park. ‘The whole world’s a comic strip now,’ mutters Tierwater – a particularly grim, 2000 ad meets Marge Piercy comic strip. Where once there was open country, bobcats, mule deer, rabbits, quails, foxes, now there are condos: ‘grey wet canyons of them’, housing weird-eyed ‘criminals. Meat eaters. Skin-cancer patients’. The super rich are ‘computer repairmen, movie people, pop stars’. Rocket is grown under the cover of immense domes; the only fish is farm-grown sushi tilapia. There are ‘eleven and a half billion people on the earth … sixty million of them right here in California’. The US West Coast has been afflicted with a vicious Mucosa plague – a malady reminiscent of the encephalitis which has sent insecticide helicopters whirring above New York for the last two summers. Air-conditioning, the American addiction to perfect frigidity, has been outlawed. Despite floods, winds, thunder and lightning, hail, the population of the US remains fixated on celebrity-goggling and the accumulation of fashionable debris.

T.C. Boyle is part East Coast acerbic, part Californian flower-guru. In youth, he took the Burroughs-tour from a childhood in the ‘vestigial woods of suburban Westchester’, through fixations on Huxley, Orwell, Salinger and Kerouac, into drop-out drug addiction and subsequently dragged himself out of smack-bohemia, settling into a PhD in Victorian poetry. He has been publishing novels since the early 1980s, and is now a member of the English Department at the University of Southern California. Yet he still mistrusts the orthodoxies of middle-class liberalism. In The Tortilla Curtain (1995), he angles ambiguous glances towards both the Californian Wasp communities who are robbed by Mexican immigrants and the illegal immigrants themselves. The ‘liberal-agnostics’ in the earlier novel are represented by Delaney Mossbacher, a nature writer, and his wife, real estate agent Kyra Menaker-Mossbacher, who live on a luxury housing estate ‘in nature’. When illegal Mexican immigrants steal the Mossbachers’ garden furniture and coyotes savage their pets they lose their tolerance for nature and the impoverished, and take to building fences and snarling at the sound of Spanish. There’s nobody very admirable in The Tortilla Curtain; the immigrants are feral and destroyed, the middle classes nervy and selfish.

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