Tuesday, April 7, 2015

When the Killing's Done, by T.C. Boyle

When the Killing's Done is a darkly ironic tale based on actual events involving the Channel Islands off the California coast. The book opens with a gripping account of a 1946 shipwreck--newlyweds Beverly and Till Boyd, along with Till's brother Warren, sail out of Santa Monica for some weekend R&R; then bad weather hits, the boat capsizes, and only two-month-pregnant Beverly survives. She washes up on the shores of the island of Anacapa--and then must survive a week beset by the rats that have overtaken the island, survivors of a much earlier shipwreck.

Decades later, Beverly's granddaughter Alma Boyd Takasue is taking on the rats. An ecologist working for the National Park Service, she is heading up an effort to kill off the invasive species (rats) so the native birds can thrive. Once that is accomplished, she plans to move on to eliminating the feral pigs that are ruining the ecology of another island, Santa Cruz. Among the animal activists opposing the National Park Service efforts to restore the islands' ecosystems through massive extermination campaigns is Dave LaJoy, a rage-fueled misanthrope. (Dave's name is as ironic as Alma's pregnancy as she heads up a hunting campaign that leads dead pigs festering across Santa Cruz.) Dave's early efforts are designed to thwart the NPS--e.g., by feeding the rats vitamin K, which will counteract the poison the NPS plans to drop on the island to kill the rats. As his schemes go ever more horribly wrong, he turns to more of a prankster campaign, introducing other species to the islands--but his luck remains spectacularly bad.

Boyle intersperses the story of the escalating conflict between environmentalists and animal lovers with back story on Alma's mother, the child shipwreck survivor Beverly produced, and Dave's girlfriend Anise, who lived on one of the islands as a child;  an account of another couple who were killed in a boating accident that seemed completely unrelated to anything else in the book (obviously, I missed something); and background on the ecological issues on the islands.

I actually learned a lot from this book, which I also found bleakly entertaining (if that is possible). The ethical issues raised were clear, although they might have been more compelling had Dave been given some tiny modicum of humanity.

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