Got this one from my boss a few weeks ago. When she gave it to me she said it was the best T.C. Boyle book she’s read, and I’m pretty sure she’s read most of them. I decided to read this one sooner than scheduled (and it was “scheduled” for sometime in 2018 based on how quickly I get through the books my boss lends me) because I’ve been wanting to read another T.C Boyle book since I read the last one, When the Killing’s Done, in early 2014. It doesn’t seem like it’s been nearly a year and a half since I read that book, but apparently it has been. The first T.C. Boyle book I ever read was The Road to Wellville, which was a historical fiction novel set in an early twentieth century health spa where people ate newfangled things like corn flakes. I remember liking it okay but also finding it a bit tedious. But I read it back in 2005, when I was still in vet school, so that’s quite possibly why I found it tedious—things had to be really interesting to hold my attention back then. The last word I would use to describe The Harder They Come is tedious, however, so T.C. Boyle’s style has either improved since writing The Road to Wellville or my tastes have become more refined, or (most likely) a little bit of both has happened.
The Harder They Come is told in shifting third person limited perspectives, focusing on three different characters: Sten Stenson, recently retired high school principal from Mendocino, California; his extremely troubled adult son Adam; and Sara Hovarty Jennings, a farrier/member of the Sovereign Citizens’ Movement, who becomes Adam’s girlfriend after she picks him up while he’s hitchhiking. Boyle walks a fine line between excellent characterization and caricatures with these three, but thankfully, that’s a line that he is very good at straddling.
The novel opens with Sten on vacation with his wife Carolee. They are celebrating his retirement on a Caribbean cruise, and as the novel opens they are taking a treacherous bus ride out to a nature preserve to go on a hike, along with all the other retirees on the cruise. While getting off the bus, some locals turn up and try to mug all of the passengers. Sten, who is a Vietnam veteran, stands up to them and puts the leader of the group in a headlock and strangles him (until he is dead, if that was not obvious). He is acclaimed as a hero since the victim was a hardened criminal who has been causing all kinds of trouble with tourists and locals for a long time. Sten has mixed emotions about the whole event; despite his appearance as a tough older guy, the incident haunts him, though he doesn’t really talk about it.
Next we meet Sara. She is a bit of a nutjob, but she means well. She’s a forty-year-old divorcee who can’t quite catch a break, though some of that is her own doing. She is a member of the Sovereign Citizens’ Movement, which means that she doesn’t acknowledge the laws or the government of the United States as applying to her, from paying taxes to wearing a seat belt, which is how her downward spiral in this novel starts. She gets pulled over for not wearing her seat belt and proceeds to make a stink that borders on truly crazy. Then her dog Kutya bites one of the police officers; also her car’s registration isn’t current because of the whole Sovereign Citizen thing. So she gets arrested, her car gets impounded, and her dog is put in quarantine at animal control because, of course, his rabies vaccine isn’t current. Sara is very bonded to her dog, and freaks out about him being taken away more than any of the rest of it, which I can get behind. Her plot to break Kutya out of quarantine is less something I can get behind. When she is driving into Willits to liberate her dog, she ends up picking up a hitchhiking Adam, who is going to do some “shopping” at Big 5. That means that he’s going to shoplift from Big 5 while his friend who works there watches and helps him not get caught. He helps her break out Kutya, and so begins their bizarre relationship.
And then there is poor Adam. He likes to think of himself as Colter (who is some sort of mountain man from way back), but really he’s Adam Stenson, son of Sten and Carolee Stenson. Adam has, let’s say, issues. There is never a name given to his illness, but he seems like he’s schizophrenic. He mentions a wheel that “spins in his head” that he can stop with alcohol and various other controlled substances. As the novel progresses it becomes harder to stop the wheel. The most powerful sections of the novel are his. Being inside someone’s head as he gradually loses touch with reality is fascinating and terrible in equal measure. Adam is in his early to mid-twenties, and when he turned eighteen he quit taking all of the medications that he needed to maintain a sense of normalcy. Since then he’s become estranged from his parents. He lives in his grandmother’s house, though she passed away a few years ago and the Stensons have finally sold the house, and he has to move out. I’m not sure why they did this; I suspect they were hoping Adam would come to his senses and get help when his home is taken away, but the opposite is true. Adam moves to the woods to live off the land like Colter. At first he stays with Sara but as his illness progresses he spends more and more time out in the woods until he returns only occasionally. For the important stuff: you know, alcohol, food, sex, and a shower.
The language T.C. Boyle uses in The Harder They Come is quite beautiful, especially in describing the Mendocino coast. We are going camping up there in a few weeks and this book made me excited to get there and to see some of the places he describes. Of course now I can’t find any of these lovely descriptions, but that’s okay. I’m sure you believe me.
This book is beautifully written, with excellent character development (even the more peripheral characters were fairly well-developed, like Carolee and Christabel, Sara’s best friend) and a fast-moving plot. I did not want to put it down while I was reading it; sleeping was a major inconvenience for me the past few days, especially as I got further down the rabbit hole of Adam’s mental illness. He has his dad’s violent streak, and as the novel progresses he fully loses access to the part of the brain that keeps a person from giving into their base instincts and desires. I don’t want to do a ton of plot summary because I think this is one of those books where knowing too much about what’s going to happen may be detrimental to one’s enjoyment of it. Maybe that isn’t entirely true, but I don’t want to do spoilers on this one. Let’s just say that by the end, Sten is not the only Stenson who has taken a life in the course of the story.
I think most people would enjoy this book. I can’t find a lot of fault with it, and believe me I’ve been trying. The main characters are flawed, and maybe I wouldn’t want to hang out with any of them, but they are sympathetic. Even Sara has a good side. Yes, she’s a wacko who doesn’t believe in the government, and she brings a lot of the bad things that happen to her upon herself because of her beliefs. But she’s trying to make a living and live her life. She falls for the absolute worst guy possible. Who hasn’t been there? Sten is a crotchety, cranky, bossy old man. He can’t relate to his son and he doesn’t want to admit that he’s an old man. But he loves his son, and he loves his wife, and he just wants to be useful in his retirement, but making that transition is difficult, as I imagine it is for most people. And then there’s Adam, who I can’t help but feel sorry for, despite all of the truly horrible things he does. T.C. Boyle mused on his website (which is really cool; he has written little blurbs about all of his books and has excerpts of them too) “Why is it, I wonder, do the mentally unstable in our societies have access to lethal weapons? And why are the shooters (in this country, at any rate) young, white and disaffected, let alone hard, isolate, stoic and killers through and through? I’m not a sociologist. I have no answers. But The Harder They Come is an attempt to enter the mind of one such shooter, as well as that of his father and lover, to imagine just how he might see the world, our world, the one in which we all, increasingly, seem to be targets (www.tcboyle.com).” He said it a heck of a lot better than I could.