Monday, May 7, 2018

Identifying with the enemy - #rightwing #TCBoyle #freedom

Giant Sequoias

As usual I’ve been reading many different books, but today I’m going to talk about only one: The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle. This one has been next to my bed for many weeks.  I found that this book deserved to be read slowly and thoughtfully, even though it’s a compelling story. Now that I’ve finished, I am recommending it to all and sundry, especially to my liberal friends who believe we’re on the correct “side” of an ideological divide and that people with opposing views are somehow the enemy. The Harder They Come confirmed my belief that it’s not that simple.

Retired high school principal and ex-Marine Sten Stenson is vacationing in Costa Rica with his wife Coralee when their tour bus is hijacked by a trio of thugs. As the native gang threatens the group of senior citizens with knives and a gun, Sten’s military training takes over. On automatic, he grabs one of their attackers by the throat to immobilize him, ultimately choking the other man to death. To his fellow cruise passengers, Sten’s a hero, but all sorts of unpleasantness follows as he is forced to deal with the local authorities and make moral compromises.

Sara Hovarty Jennings is a sovereign citizen. A forty-something divorcee who struggles with her weight, she works hard at her job as a farrier, takes meticulous care of her own personal property, loves her shaggy dog Kutya, and just wants to be left alone. She doesn’t pay taxes. She won’t register or insure her car just because the government says she must. She sure as hell isn’t going to wear a seat belt just because some law requires it. One evening she’s stopped by the police on California Route 20. She refuses to get out of the car as the officer demands. She ends up in jail overnight, with her car impounded and Kutya in quarantine because he hasn’t been vaccinated for rabies as the law demands.

Adam Stenson, Sten’s son, has always been a problem child. Now in his twenties, he’s living in a cabin in the northern California forest, drinking grain alcohol, growing drugs and becoming progressively less connected with reality. He identifies with, and takes the name of, the legendary mountain man John Colter. He’s determined to be as tough and crafty as his hero, to fight against the “aliens” who want to control him, to live free in the wilderness no matter what the cost.

When Sara encounters Adam, she persuades him to help her free her dog from the pound. They become lovers. Though Adam is peculiar, emotionally volatile, maybe dangerous, a bond develops between them. Everything unravels, though, when Adam, in the throes of his Colter-inspired hallucinations, shoots and kills two local men.

T.C. Boyle’s brilliant novel The Harder They Come revolves around these three rather extreme characters. Their beliefs and their actions should make them seem repugnant, or at least very foreign to someone like me, who espouses rather liberal political views. It is a measure of Boyle’s genius that he managed to make me feel sympathy for and warmth toward all three of theme, even the homicidal lunatic Adam.

In the real world I might label these people as right wing kooks. Boyle conveys their emotions with such conviction and their philosophies with such apparent logic that I found myself actually agreeing with them, at least to some extent. I admired Sara’s independence and courage. I felt Sten’s frustration with his aging body and his helpless despair in the face of his son’s psychological impairment, and understood how these feelings could engender deadly anger. I even could understand why Adam felt as he did, why he was so inspired by Colter, in a world where true agency is so difficult to achieve.

It took me a long time to finish The Harder They Come—more than a month, though of course I was reading quite a few other books concurrently. I found that I didn’t want to consume more than one or two chapters at a sitting, not because the book didn’t pull me in, but because I felt I needed a break to digest and to appreciate what I’d just read.

Boyle’s prose is so compact, so evocative, so precisely targeted, that one cannot help but marvel. He’s an expert at conveying the natural world as well as human emotions and behavior. The Harder They Come is set well north of San Francisco, near Mendocino and Fort Bragg, among the redwoods and the rednecks. The area used to be a thriving center of the logging industry, but that prosperity is long gone. Now Mexican gangs grow pot deep in the woods, the old rail line is used for tourist jaunts, the locals struggle, and everyone wonders what the future will bring.

The book beautifully conveys the natural beauty of the area, the wildness that still exists. It also evokes the quiet desperation of the people who inhabit the region, a desperation that expresses itself in prejudice and violence. Boyle focuses on Sten, Sara and Adam, makes them real, living, breathing human beings, but he’s also clear that they’re products of their time and environment. The Harder They Come could be viewed as a microcosm of contemporary American society, a cautionary tale on the consequences of extremism.

But Boyle isn’t on a soap box. He never is. He’s just painting pictures, encouraging us to draw our own conclusions. That’s why I feel that this novel is important. It goes beyond the stereotypes, probes more deeply into how these people—“these people” whom in another context I might be tempted to label as the enemy, as alien to me as the guys Adam murders—reason, think and feel. And my conclusion is that ultimately, we’re not that different after all.

Maybe more so-called liberal Americans should read this book.


  1. I'm currently reading "A Higher Loyalty" by James Comey, ex-FBI director. It's a really good read and 99% is not about Trump. I'm having a hard problem believing that he is really "Lying Comey" as he sounds more like a boy scout to me.

    Speaking of boy scouts, what do we call boy scouts now that they are androgynous scouts?

    1. I don't really want to read about the whole mess.

      I don't want to enrich anyone involved by buying their books, in fact - though I'm sure Comey will make big bucks on this blockbuster.

    2. I appreciate your position but after watching his testimony, wanted to see if he was as big a choir boy as he seemed. It was nice to read his background and I could identify with him. I can't blame him for wanting to make some money off the deal after being fired at the peak of his career.

  2. Just call them "scouts." No need for a gender-specific title of any kind. My daughter and her friends loved being girl scouts, but mostly because of the time they got to spend with each other, and the close relationships they formed with the three moms who ran the troop(me and 2 other moms.) 2 of my boys did boy scouts for a while, but they never felt that close with the leadership or each other. Maybe the two should be combined, with the best of each being offered to all kids?

    As for this book you referred to, Lisabet? Not sure I want to devote that kind of time to understanding where that kind of thinking comes from. The problem is that people who think like that never want to try to understand where I'm coming from, or why I think like I do. I'm really tired of always having to be the understanding one...the one who reaches across the chasm in-between us, and tries to make peace. Look how well that worked for Obama. Lots more he could have gotten done, if he hadn't been so accommodating.

    Besides, I have scant time to read. Just like when I go to a movie, I want to be entertained by big, splashy action scenes; when I read, I want to be entertained. While informative, this book doesn't sound that entertaining. More depressing, really.

    1. Fiona, people like you SHOULD read this book. It is not entertaining in the light sense, but it is moving and thoughtful and sometimes funny. Not escapism, but I believe you would enjoy it, and it would enrich your view of the world.

    2. Fiona, you said: "The problem is that people who think like that never want to try to understand where I'm coming from, or why I think like I do. I'm really tired of always having to be the understanding one...the one who reaches across the chasm in-between us, and tries to make peace."

      Wow, that speaks to me. And while what you describe is really thought-provoking and interesting-sounding, I'm aware of choices Boyle is making that adds to this sympathy. Like the storyline about Sara--how very different would that be if this character wasn't white? Instead of feeling sympathy, I worry that a common reaction would be, "Well, she should have vaccinated her dog, then." It's pretty wild to me how in this country right now there seems to be near-infinite sympathy for this brand of extremists at the same time that people seem barely able to summon basic empathy for the terrifying encounters non-white people are having with police, ICE agents, etc.

      Just had to get that one off my chest. It sounds like Boyle is a fantastic writer.

    3. People who choose to be ignorant, who deny the advances that have been made in science, medicine, etc., all because of their predisposition to irrational thinking, are not all that interesting to me. You were gifted with a brain that's capable of out-doing even the most advanced computers, and all you want to do with it is pine for the non-existent, halcyon days of yore, when white men were default for everything, and everyone else knew their place? The days of having to make/grow everything you needed yourself. Of living off the land?
      Then go ahead and do so. But don't expect the government, which you rail so hard against, to support you in your endeavors (hello, cattle guys who insist on their God-given right to let their cattle graze on public land, that belongs to ALL of us, not just to them!)

      You don't want to wear a seat-belt? Fine. But don't expect our Medicare/Medicaid/Social Security system, which you refuse to pay into, to support your butt when you fly through your windshield and become disabled. But you know what? You will...and the medical system will do everything they can to save you, despite your selfish viewpoint. That's probably what aggravates me the most.

      I'm sorry Lisabet, but I don't think I'm as "big" of a person as you are. This book isn't for me. Maybe because I still live in the US, surrounded in my town by folks who think like this. I don't need to read about them too.

    4. Sorry if that sounded snarky. I just get so frustrated by folks who say they want big government gone, but only in regards to providing for the public good, and restraining corporate greed. They reserve the right for the government of their choice to pry into people's sex lives...and into the wombs of fertile women. The hypocrisy is overwhelming sometimes. I'm sorry if I offended anyone, especially you, Lisabet. I admire your largess in wanting to understand how people different from you think. But I'm tired of having to listen to folks like that tell me, ad-nauseum, why how they think is right, and why I'm wrong.

    5. I understand where you are coming from, Fiona, and I don't disagree. However, I think the "us" versus "them" mentality is a big problem on both sides. It's simply not true that everyone who supports Trump, or the Republicans, or the pro-life agenda, or the anti-LGBQT agenda, thinks and feels the same way.

      It's not a question of being "big" but rather, of considering whether there might be ways to get beyond the polarization to actually solve problems.

    6. By "thinks the same way", I mean, "thinks the same way as everyone we lump into that group".

    7. Funny, Annabeth - if Sara weren't white, I think I would have felt MORE sympathy for her. At the same time, she would have been a less plausible character. I am sure there are right wing people of color, but one associates her views with white people.

  3. I've come to realize the obvious fact that large sections of the population get a whole different set of "facts" and news stories than other large sections. It's not as if all of us see the same information but form different opinions, although some of that goes on too. I actually only know one dedicated conservative (after all, I live in Massachusetts), and only know him because his wife is a friend, but he's forever parroting lines fed to him online about what "liberals" think and do. I mostly ignore it, but now and then I remind him that I know great many more "liberals" than he does, and what he says is hogwash. I do realize, though, how far overboard my sources of news and opinion also go to give a slant to events.

    1. I try really hard to read things that come from a different political perspective, and truly evaluate them based on logic and facts.

      However, it's really hard to know these days what you should believe. I have a good friend who's a climate change denier. (There, you see, I've already used a label that puts him in the other camp!) He's a really smart guy, and we have some excellent discussions. However, it's hard to amass evidence for any position when your partner in the argument can claim your sources are biased.

      And how do you know?

  4. I love T.C.Boyle.He's a SoCal prof, I think at USC, did you know that Lisabet?I remember discovering him when I first started writing. A New Yorker story maybe with of course lots of controversy. He likes to stir the pot.
    I'm going to B & N tomorrow to get the book.

    1. Hi, Mary! Great to see you here.

      I definitely did not know he was from California. Several of the earliest books I read by him, which confirmed him as a favorite author, were set in New York or elsewhere on the east coast.

  5. I haven't read T.C. Boyle, but definitely should. I will look him up.


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