Book review: New novels unwrap American violence |

Book review: New novels unwrap American violence

Jennie Lay/For the Steamboat Pilot & Today

“The Harder They Come,” by T.C. Boyle

T.C. Boyle’s powerful and unnerving new novel, “The Harder They Come,” toys with America’s propensity for violence, paranoia and self-indulgence — and the consequences we suffer.

Boyle returns to the California landscape he knows so well. His Golden State is genuine and gritty, even in fairytale Mendocino County, a refined coastal community filled with luxurious real estate, fine dining and Prius-driving retirees. Boyle’s yuppies are juxtaposed against rugged redwood forests populated by drug lords and misfits who moved there to drop out, grow weed or be paranoid in peace. It’s a churning dynamic where every character suffers his or her own brand of loathing and rage — a lust for some form of self-defined and unrealized freedom. A Vietnam vet protects his jungle tour group from robbers while on a cruise stop in Costa Rica, but his fellow clueless American tourists remain dismissive of local culture, due process and a death in their wake. A delusional son spirals deeper into malcontent for his father, mental illness and fascination with violence; his much older lover touts herself a “sovereign citizen” who lives by anarchist pamphlets and a strong bout of paranoia. A start-up of vigilantes patrols the woods in search of Mexican drug gangs.

This thoroughly modern story surely gleans characters from the eccentricities of right-wing news makers. Boyle simplifies no one’s politics, nor their human complexities. Still, there is satire in Boyle’s rendering, a warning wag of the finger for demonstrations of righteousness and heroism. Ultimately, Boyle’s characters spiral downward into a massive manhunt marked by guns, politics, racism, mental illness and swarming federal agents. You see it coming, and you won’t avert your gaze.

“Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral,” by Mary Doria Russell

Accounts of the 30-second gunfight at the O.K. Corral are classic Western lore, but Mary Doria Russell tells the story, and the back story, deeper and better than you’ve ever heard it before. In “Epitaph,” Russell did vast research into the iconic Tombstone, Ariz., shootout involving Doc Holliday, the Earp brothers, the Clantons and the McLaurys. In a work of riveting historical fiction, Russell artfully weaves a treasure trove of intrigue about one violent encounter and a bristling frontier.

Russell’s telling nearly convinces you she was there. Hers is a vivid and often harrowing portrait of haphazard Western expansion lorded over by guns, greed, underhanded politics and unscrupulous “Cow Boys.” The lives of scrappy miners, lawmen and homesteaders are far from romantic. Her especially keen telling of the women’s multi-dimensional stories is refreshing.

Russell’s wide lens unveils Tombstone’s complex and long-simmering feud against a broad backdrop of frontier American politics and unscrupulous social mores. She reveals layers of corruption, bigotry and underhanded slights that transpired in post-Civil War politics, opportunistic journalism, cross-border cattle rustling and at the poker table. Tombstone’s 1881 tragedy, perhaps not unlike many today, arose in an America that was divided, prideful and overeager in its individualism.

At nearly 600 pages, Russell’s detailed follow-up to her bestselling novel “Doc” is being called an American “Iliad.” It’s hard to argue that any of her meticulous character-building should have been cut short. In the process, she unwinds the mythology of Wyatt Earp and gives us a vibrant, beautifully crafted novel with an engaging new perspective on an iconic story of the Wild West.

Russell will be a featured author at Bud Werner Memorial Library’s 23rd annual Literary Sojourn festival of authors on Oct. 10.

Jennie Lay is the adult programs coordinator at the Bud Werner Memorial Library. These books are available at the Bud Werner Memorial Library and Off the Beaten Path Bookstore.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.


Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User