When I lived in Arizona in the late 1980s there was an environmental group called Earth First! that was creating a lot of excitement on campus. Edward Abbey was teaching at the University of Arizona and everyone was reading his book called The Monkey Wrench Gang
. Earth First! advocated using some of the tactics that Abbey described in his book. All was fun and good until the FBI busted down Dave Foreman's (the most vocal leader of Earth First!)door in the middle of the night, with black helicopters circling, and hauled him away. The next few days there was many of us trying to remember who we knew that was part of the movement and determine our particular degree of separation as more and more people were arrested. The FBI effectively scared the crap out of anyone involved in the environmental movement in the Southwest. Earth First logo
Imagine my pleasant surprise when the group that Ty Tierwater, our hero, was associated with is Earth Forever! Okay, obviously Boyle decided to change the name and move the base of operation to California, but he can't fool me. Ty is the most radical of the Earth Forever! members he sees the political struggle over the Earth as a war and that destructive Monkey Wrenching tactics is the only way to force the large lumber companies to back off. We first meet Ty in 2025 and all the most dire predictions for the Earth have come true. The places that are dry have become more barren and the places that were traditional wet zones have become flood zones. All of his activism accomplished nothing. Tierwater is now 75 years old and taking care of a small menagerie of exotic animals for a pop star. After several stints in jail for illegal activity this is about the only job a famous felon can find. He sums up his life through the workings of his bowels.
"My guts are rumbling: gas, that's what it is. If I lie absolutely still, it'll work through all the anfractuous turns and twists down there and find its inevitable way to the point of release. And what am I thinking? That's methane gas, a natural pollutant, same as you get from landfills, feedlots and termite mounds, and it persists in the atmosphere for ten years, one more fart's worth of global warming. I'm a mess and I know it. Jewish guilt, Catholic guilt, enviroeco-capitalistico guilt. I can't even expel gas in peace. Of course, guilt itself is a luxury. In prison we didn't concern ourselves overmuch about environmental degradation or the rights of nature or anything else, for that matter. They penned us up like animals, and we shat and pissed and jerked off and blew hurricanes out our rectums, and if the world collapsed as a result, all the better, at least we'd be out."Dave Foreman
The book flips back and forth between 1989-91 and 2025-26. We see the decisions that Ty makes trying to make a difference and the influence of his actions on the development of his daughter. Despite numerous incarcerations Ty is never rehabilitated. "Every prisoner told himself-I'll never do it again
but Tierwater didn't believe it. Not for a minute. He knew now, with every yearning, hating , bitter and terminally bored fiber of his being, why prison didn't reform anybody. Penitentiary. What a joke. The only thing you were penitent for was getting caught. And the more time you did, the more you wanted to strike back at the sons of bitches and make them wince, make them hurt the way you did. That was rehabilitation for you."Edward Abbey once tried to pick up my girlfriend at a book signing with ME standing RIGHT THERE. Horny bastard.
I wasn't sure how I felt about Ty Tierwater for most of the book, but as the novel progressed I had developed a grudging respect for him. He really did care, maybe too much to think clearly, but he was truly committed to saving the planet. Even as an old man, we still find him trying to do what he can to preserve a tiny part of the diversity of the planet. By the end of the novel he has found some solitude. "I've entered a new world. Or an old one, a world that exists only in the snapping tangle of neurons in my poor ratcheting brain...For the first time in a long time I feel something approaching optimism, or at least a decline in the gradient of pessimism." By 2026 Ty finds himself ultimately more concerned about finding peace for himself knowing the battle for the planet has been lost, yet hopeful, that a new planet will emerge with new creatures and maybe a better primary caretaker. I most recently talked with Boyle at a signing in Wichita. I'm still mad at myself that I forgot to ask him about taking classes under Cheever.
It has been a long time since I've read T. C. Boyle and it won't be as long before I read the next Boyle. He is a smart, crafty writer with brimming intelligence on every page.