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.

Boyle shies away from straightforwardness – and from any absolute position. The angle at which he looks at things about which most people have rather fixed ideas – the food industry, marijuana, immigration, sexual pathology – shifts continually. In Riven Rock (1998), he produced a wilfully indecisive portrait of 19th-century sexology; his warped hero Stanley McCormick is a millionaire whose Ivy League manners are overcome by rampaging lust at the sight of a woman. McCormick’s doctors base their diagnoses on the work of various 19th-century sexologists, including Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (who defined an ‘intermediate sex’ in a pamphlet in 1864), Krafft-Ebing (who in 1886 published Psychopathia Sexualis, a collection of case studies of ‘deviant’ sexuality: sadism, masochism, fetishism, ‘antipathetic sexual instinct’) and Havelock Ellis, whose study Sexual Inversion was published in 1897 and banned in England after the Wilde trial. Unable to decide whether they should blame McCormick or his cool, mannish wife, his doctors confidently advise a variety of vastly expensive, increasingly absurd, and ultimately useless treatments. Boyle dislikes theory mongers, physicians, people who believe they are right. Monomaniacs in particular get low marks and the dangers of single-mindedness are catalogued in The Road to Wellville (1993), a novel about the cereal manufacturer Dr John Harvey Kellogg – inventor, in Boyle’s phrase, of ‘gastrically correct foods’. He makes surreal play of Kellogg’s determination to force his guests at the Battle Creek Sanitarium to eat his nutritional products: ‘Nut Lisbon Steak, Protose Patties, Nuttolene & Jelly, Corn Pulp, Sliced Banana with Beaten Meltose, Granuto, Graham Grits’. Into the health feast, Boyle hurls a collection of characters sufficiently degenerate to challenge the most sanguine guru: Charlie Ossining – an eager businessmen, desperate for his share of the breakfast food millions – and the Lightbodies, a couple who alternate between starving and gorging themselves. (The novel was turned into a film by Alan Parker, starring Anthony Hopkins, John Cusack and Bridget Fonda.)

In A Friend of the Earth Boyle turns his squinting attention to environmentalism, creating a disconcerting marriage of farce and prophecy: he doesn’t doubt the looming apocalypse; he merely doubts – finds hilarious, even – the idea that the human race would do anything to save itself. This is a comedy of old men stumbling through flooded carparks, destroying the cowboy boots they put on in a moment of vanity. Small, pathetic things keep interfering with the eschatological carnage; the novel opens with Tierwater standing in a bar ‘on aching knees in a dress up shirt and with a sopping-wet beret that looks like a chilli-cheese omelette’ laid over his naked scalp, ‘waiting for a phantom’. The phantom is his ex-wife Andrea, in the 1990s ‘a knockout, a killer’, now a plastic primadonna, a thing of artificial lips and hair. Andrea was once a luminary in a group of environmental activists called Earth Forever! ‘Never heard of it?’ mutters Tierwater to the reader. ‘Think radical enviro group, Eighties and Nineties. Tree-spiking? Ecotage?’ – sabotage by environmentalists – ‘Ring a bell?’)

They met in the 1980s, at a ‘powwow/ chilli cook off/apocalyptic lecture/slide show at the home of Linda D’Piqua-Hoover in Croton’. Until then, Tierwater had been ‘oblivious’: that is, a car-driving, consuming, accumulating, buying, occasionally recycling, gym-going, trash-generating ordinary citizen who ‘just like you – if you live in the Western world … caused approximately two hundred and fifty times the damage to the environment of this tattered bleeding planet as a Bangladeshi or Balinese.’ And then

it begins … on a summer night so crammed with stars the Milky Way looks like a white plastic sack strung out across the roof of the sky. No moon at all … And no sound, but for the discontinuous trickle of water, the muted patter of cheap tennis sneakers on the ghostly surface of the road and the sustained applause of the crickets.

On a dusty logging track, Tierwater, Andrea and Tierwater’s daughter Sierra sink their feet into quick-drying concrete and wait for the logging trucks. Tierwater stands there, wearing extra absorbent nappies and munching on sandwiches and granola bars, the ‘concrete gripping his ankles like a dark set of jaws, the stars receding into the skullcap of the silvering sky and every bird alive in every tree.’

At dawn, the logging truck nearly kills them, a shaking driver emerges, ‘35, flat dead alcoholic eyes, the annealed imprint of a scar like a brand stamped into the flange of his nose’. He is a man who ‘knows incontrovertibly that Earth Forever! is a front for Bolshevik terrorists with homosexual tendencies’. He calls his boss, his boss calls Sheriff Bob Hicks of Duckworth County, and the ‘deflating … dénouement’ finds Tierwater on the run and Sierra rehoused with a group of evangelical ‘Christians’.

The battle lines are drawn. To be a ‘friend of the earth,’ Tierwater proclaims, ‘you have to be an enemy of the people’: of the ‘bosses, underbosses, heavy machine operators, CEOs, power-lunchers, police, accountants’ and ‘all those good, decent, hard-working and terminally misguided timber families, the men in baseball caps and red suspenders, the women like tented houses’. The ‘people’ are ‘stupid as dirt’. There are too many of them, and ‘they’re all going the same place we are.’ As he moves from ‘suburban drudge to outside agitator’, Tierwater frantically sheds the goods which tie him to the sordid world of the majority: his house, his cars, the ‘shopping centre my father left me, my wind surfer and Adirondack chair and my complete set of bootleg Dylan tapes’. And the people don’t much like Tierwater either: the Child Protective Services think he’s a ‘freak’; the law, dispensed by slapstick, jowly sheriffs, brands him a criminal. Despite the best efforts of the Christians, Sierra becomes a tree-defender, and takes to perching ‘halfway to the sky in a blizzard of mystical, earth-mothering, New Wave crap, woo-ooo on parade, and every ravening nutball with a grudge and a chainsaw stalking round down below’.

The unenlightened, Tierwater suggests, are those who’ve ‘never heard of Arne Naess or Deep Ecology’. In the 1970s, Naess, a Norwegian ‘ecosopher’, set the ‘deep’ ecological view in opposition to the ‘shallow’ – ‘deep’ signifying the point at which one replaces the notion of man-in-nature with the notion of the community of nature, of which man is merely a part. ‘Men are not like animals, they are animals,’ Joseph Meeker wrote in The Comedy of Survival. Accepting this should lead to ‘biospherical egalitarianism’ in Naess’s lexicon, and will induce a ‘deep-seated respect, or even veneration, for ways and forms of life’.

But there is a paradox in deep ecology, and in Tierwater’s attempts to adopt it. We are required to use the qualities which distinguish us from the rest of nature – apocalyptic prediction, self-restraint, the ability to alter our environment with an eye to the consequences – in order to ‘save nature’ from ourselves, a mere part of nature. Peter Wessel Zappfe, another Norwegian ecosopher, has suggested that our perception of the destructive effect we have on the environment sets us apart from ‘the natural’, and renders us eternally ‘homeless’ in nature. In Om det tragiske, Zappfe suggests that this is humanity’s shared tragedy: to crave inclusion in nature while being doomed to perceive it in terms that differentiate us from it. Zappfe has even concluded that our unnatural awareness of our destructive effect on nature will eventually lead us to a self-annihilating decision to stop procreating.

The problem of fixing the ‘right relationship’ between people and nature permeates Boyle’s novel. In environmental terms, the choice is between anthropocentrism and ecocentrism – Earth first, or the people first. Rejecting ‘the people’ for the rats and kangaroos, Tierwater lurches towards the sinewy heroics of Earth Forever!, whose ecotageurs stand, convinced of their ideological rightness and kinship to nature, like ‘plugs of muscle hammered into the ground’. Yet, the activities of Earth Forever! turn out to be less ecocentric than Tierwater hoped. They take inspiration from the great American wilderness writers, from Thoreau and John Muir (founder in 1892 of the wilderness conservation society, the Sierra Club) to Edward Abbey (renegade desert-lover and author of the 1970s eco-novel The Monkey Wrench Gang). Thoreau’s blend of pantheism and patriotism celebrates the vastness of the American landscape as ‘symbolical of the height to which the philosophy and poetry and religion of her inhabitants may one day soar’: ‘If the moon looks larger here than in Europe, probably the sun looks larger too … the heavens of America appear infinitely higher, the stars brighter.’ More modestly, Muir asked: ‘Why should man value himself as more than a small part of the one great unit of creation?’ But he also saluted ‘American forests! The glory of the world!’

Earth Forever!’s tree-saving is gratifying enough to the individuals who perform it – a gratification derived from the sense that the beauties of American nature are intertwined with the nobility of those who save them. The ecotageurs perceive their bond with nature as reciprocal, imagining their forest-defence can also somehow ‘cheer nature up’, just as Muir established the Sierra Club to ‘make the mountains glad’. Tierwater’s joyfully evangelical conversion to eco-warriorhood perfectly expresses his feeling of ‘friendship’ towards trees, shrubs, kangaroo rats, ‘everything else that lives and breathes under the sun’. Yet, he begins to find the pantheistic ecstasy of Earth Forever! rather like dancing a wild jig at a funeral. And nature won’t play along, either. After nominating himself as a friend of the earth, Tierwater is bemused to discover that the kangaroo rats, antelopes and trees aren’t interested in his friendship. His first wife, Jane, dies from a bee sting, his daughter falls out of a tree she is trying to protect. The wild animals being ‘saved’ in Pulchris’s park run riot. When vicious storms destroy their cages and force Pulchris to stick them in his cellar, a lion called Dandelion ascends in a dumb-waiter and attacks the company as they sit down to eggs florentine. Parents take children to safari parks to show them the bears, and are hospitalised for months. Nature ‘bites back’ in as many ways as it can, hurling itself, all ‘stinking primitive energy’, at humans who come to admire it. Tierwater and Andrea, who leave civilisation to roam the wilderness for a month, are reduced to snuffling bone-creatures, preying on any living organism they can find.

The efforts of ‘friends of nature’ seem ridiculous, their individual actions insignificant in relation to the overwhelming disaster unfolding in the novel. Nature is utterly indifferent to their efforts on its behalf. Environmental demagogues are lured towards the mainstream spoils of celebrity and career take-off. The energetic bombast of Earth Forever! slides into hypocrisy. While Tierwater continues on his desperate, life-endangering course, Andrea takes to buying sleek, brand-new cars to impress journalists, wearing designer leather boots and promoting a range of eco-merchandise. In the end Tierwater himself is spotted wearing designer suits.

The real-life eco-radical group Earth First! (on which Earth Forever!, one can only assume, is modelled) asks visitors to its website if they are ‘tired of namby pamby environmental groups’ and ‘overpaid corporate environmentalists who suck up to bureaucrats and industry’. One Earth First! slogan runs: ‘Action is still the antidote to despair!’ Lurking in this is a sense that action may merely be an antidote to individual gloom: ‘act to make yourself feel better!’ In response to questions about the tactics of Earth First! and a breakaway group, the Earth Liberation Front, Arne Naess has suggested that US ecotageurs are forced to extreme acts because their Government has refused to listen. He does not suggest, though Boyle hints at it, that there is a continuity between the old rhetoric of wilderness pioneering and that of contemporary US ecotage. Earth Forever!’s concerns remain resolutely parochial; they focus on specific Californian forests, specific Californian trees. Tierwater’s plans for the salvation of the planet move inexorably towards megalo-individualism. His depression is as much to do with the failure of his own life as it is with the failure of the species to save the planet: personal tragedy and human extinction become intertwined. Earth-empathy swiftly turns into egomania, a belief that one’s own prescriptions for the planet must be right. Move US environmental action even slightly away from the ‘demoralised realism’ Tierwater finds so depressing, and it becomes part of the problem, one more piece of self-indulgence. Worst of all is the insularity of US wilderness fighters, their belief that the US can rise above the mess by sheer force of national personality. Save the US wilderness and we can save the planet, they say, as if everything had not become global, and uncontrollable. We are doomed, Boyle suggests, to live through a grim farce of our own devising, and no one is going to come out well.