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T Coraghessan Boyle is prolific. Since 1982, he’s published fifteen novels (The Harder They Come is his latest) and ten collections of short stories. The Harder They Come is an ambitious, disturbing account of America today, as well as a harrowing story of suspense as the tragedy within it unfolds.
Told in the third-person voices of three main characters – Sten, Sten’s son Adam, and Adam’s lover Sara – Boyle does a great job of showing us their worlds, their beliefs and above all their disillusionment with the way their lives have turned out. Boyle keeps up the pace by constantly switching between Sten, Adam and Sara, and by splitting the book into short chapters of no more than ten or twelve pages each. The action and suspense doesn’t falter for a second.
Sten is a Vietnam veteran but, unlike many other returned soldiers of that despised conflict, he hasn’t ended up on the street or in prison. A retired high school principal, he has sustained a satisfactory marriage and raised a child. Of course he is damaged, but his life since the war has consisted of high school politics, parent-teacher evenings and taking his wife out to dinner once a week.
Underneath this conventional veneer, though, is a violence that pervades every page of the story. Is Sten an innately violent person? Does it come from Sten’s service in Vietnam? Or is it the frustration and impatience all men in the seventies feel, as the ends of their lives approach and they realise they’ve already achieved all they will, and there’s nothing more of note to come? Boyle makes it clear, without ever being explicit, that Adam’s troubled, dysfunctional, violent life is a direct unintentional result of his relationship with his father.
The book starts with a sudden act of violence by Sten, in the unlikely surroundings of a shore excursion on a retirees cruise holiday. It horrifies him, but everyone else thinks him a hero. He can’t deal with it; it changes everything for him and his wife, and shows us a hint of what’s in store in the rest of the story.
The characters in The Harder They Come don’t help themselves with their irrational, resistant, and unhinged behaviour, but this merely throws the nature of society in America – and, undoubtedly, other western societies – into sharp relief. It is not entirely their fault. Whether it is Sara, desperately rejecting conventional society, repeating ‘I don’t have a contract with you’ to anyone representing officialdom, but still obsessed with her calorie intake; or Adam, pining for life as a ‘mountain man’ pioneer from two centuries ago, retreating to the woods to grow drugs, and hating the Chinese, Mexicans and other ‘aliens’; or even Sten, trying to come to terms with his so-called heroic act on the shore excursion, they all need the kind of help you can’t get in California these days unless you’re seriously wealthy.
The subtle way in which Boyle has things unravel from simply odd and awkward to disturbed and tragic is masterful, as if one moment you’re scrambling down a steep but manageable scree slope but the next, before you know it, you are flying out of control. You could have done something about it, but you didn’t realise until it was too late. That applies to everyone in this story.
The Harder They Come doesn’t bother with lots of fancy flashbacks, although there are some, or with complex narrative structures. Boyle captures the different voices of the three characters brilliantly and distinctly. Sometimes the chapters overlap in time as we see the action unfold from each character’s point of view, but mostly this story starts running hard in one direction right at the start and doesn’t stop until it is done. It is a hard to put down tragedy of guns, drugs, and the damaged, dis-enfranchised individuals America cannot – or will not – look after.
Reviewed by C P Howe
The Harder They Come
by T C Boyle
Published by Bloomsbury