T.C. Boyle Focuses on Cycles of Rage in ‘The Harder They Come’

Lee Polevoi


The Harder They Come

T.C. Boyle


400 pages


T.C. Boyle writes sentences that won’t sit still. They twitch, fidget, flit this way and that across the page, before settling down long enough to offer richly textured descriptions of a landscape or to portray—often with disconcerting accuracy—the tortured inner lives of his characters.


In the opening pages of Boyle’s new novel, The Harder They Come, a 70-year-old Vietnam vet named Sten Stensen and his wife are part of a tour group robbed at gunpoint while on vacation in Costa Rica. At some point during the ordeal, his long-ago military training kicks in and Stensen subdues one of the robbers, killing him in the process.


On the bus ride back to the Red Cross Clinic, he experiences the adrenalin-charged aftermath of the incident:


“Time compressed. The jungle slashed by on either side and the potholes exploded under the wheels. He felt sick. There was a kind of buzzing in his skull, as if a swarm of insects had got trapped inside. His knees were cramped. He felt thirsty all over again. Three rows up, laid out in the middle of the aisle, was the foreshadowed form of the gunman, the paramedic hovering over him, but all he could make out were the soles of the man’s feet, jutting up like parentheses enclosing a phrase he didn’t want to decipher.”


Stensen’s 25-year-old son Adam, who struggles with persistent mental illness, is another one for whom “a swarm of insects” is constantly buzzing inside his skull. Long estranged from his parents, Adam is holed up at his deceased grandmother’s house in a remote stretch of Northern California woodland, training to live off the land and refine his skills with various types of automatic weaponry.



The novel’s third primary character, Sara Jennings, is a middle-aged farrier—traveling among local ranches and shoeing their hoofed animals—who considers herself “a sovereign citizen” not obliged to recognize the laws of the “U.S. Illegitimate Government of America the Corporate.” This makes life difficult at times, as when she’s pulled over for not wearing a seatbelt and must submit to a brief time in lock-up and the confiscation of her beloved dog.


Sara and Adam cross paths early on, after which their fates are inextricably linked—with no happy ending in sight.


Of the three people driving this novel, Adam is the most imaginatively rendered, if only because Boyle “inhabits” his schizophrenia so effectively. Sara enlists Adam’s assistance in a dog-rescue caper that sends “the little wheel inside his brain spinning at top speed,” and as they make their escape, he has difficulty staying attached to reality:


“ … all he could see was a bolted-together metal head where her head had been just a second ago and a mechanical arm reaching down under the steering wheel and through the instrument panel and into the superhot engine until she began to say something through the giggles and her real head propped back on her shoulders with all its lines and grooves and stingy retreating bones and the eyes that kept snapping at him like rubber bands.”


Sara comes off as the least convincing of the three. A 40-year-old adult, regardless of her extreme anti-government views, would likely foresee the bureaucratic hassles resulting from a failure to obey California state laws and choose another form of protest instead. She seems more of a vehicle through which Boyle can channel the aggrieved perspective of a very real strain of “American loner” sensibility—but not as much of a living, breathing fictional character.


Both in his many novels and short stories, T.C. Boyle is exceedingly skilled at setting up an intriguing premise, but here the payoff isn’t as earthshaking as it might have been. In a story fueled by anger—for Stensen, anger at crass American culture, for Adam, something more virulent and undifferentiated—the violent outcome is never in question. Still, with its headlong momentum and vivid depiction of American rage, The Harder They Come ranks among this prolific author’s best works.


Author Bio:


Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, is completing a new novel.

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