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T.C. Boyle's New Must Read: When the Killing's Done

T.C. Boyle's sweeping environmental saga shows that the epic battle of man versus nature will continue long after the killing's done.

Humans have incredibly complex, and often completely arbitrary, relationships with animals. We see rats as both pets and pests: They're adorable in Ratatouille, horrific in our homes. Some animal populations are deemed invasive and need to be euphemistically "controlled"; others are endangered and in need of saving. Each of us justifies our own opinions and choices about which animals should be eaten/protected/controlled with regard to everything from which kind of sushi we can feel good about ordering to which species merits a donation to the World Wildlife Fund.

These conflicts date at least as far back as the Bible's Ten Plagues. Centuries later some frogs plague residents of the Big Island of Hawaii with their ceaseless croaking, others find themselves arranged on a plate, still others are exhibited at the local aquarium. Animal-human relationships have become ever more complex, nuanced by such disparate forces as politics, Pixar, and PETA. Whatever the species or context, passions run high, a reality that makes the narrative of T.C. Boyles new novel, When the Killing's Done, gripping the whole way through.

Neither the book's protagonist, Alma Boyd Takesue, a National Park Service biologist who is spearheading the efforts to save Santa Barbara's Channel Island's endangered native creatures from invasive species like rats and feral pigs, or the antagonist, the BMW-driving, dreadlocked Dave LaJoy, who possesses an irrational devotion to every species on god's green earth, are particularly likable. But they are completely believable. Recounting their respective agendas in alternating chapters, Boyle shows throughout how there are no clear-cut answers to the weighty environmental dilemmas they face. (Is one's decision to eliminate the population of feral pigs more or less egregious than the other's decision to use illegally obtained rattlesnakes to stop the process?) Alma and Dave can't stand each other yet their personal quests are, to each other's constant dismay, inextricably intertwined. Both Alma's and Dave's actions make perfect sense to them and their respective entourages, though they are almost always clouded, whether by emotion, public opinion, or bad weather.

Like the similarly awesomely titled saga, There Will Be Blood (which shows yet another example of man's folly in fighting nature), When the Killing's Done is epic entertainment. And despite its engagement with pressing environmental concerns, it is refreshingly free of sanctimony.

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