Every spirit builds itself a house, and beyond
its house a world, and beyond its world, a heaven.
Know then that the world exists for you.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Nature"
The earth died screaming
While I lay dreaming….
— Tom Waits, "The Earth Died Screaming"
Thus begins T. Coraghessan Boyle’s
rapturous cautionary novel of the too-near future, A Friend of the Earth
, published in the year 2000.
The greenhouse effect is greater and comes upon us quicker than anyone imagined. By 2026 the world’s climate has changed utterly. Coastal cities have been lost to the advancing oceans. Thousands of species of plants and animals have virtually disappeared, almost as if no one were watching.
Tyrone O’Shaughnessy Tierwater is old. Not old-old and decrepit and retired or sick, but young-old, a man who took advantage of medical advances, kept busy, and is living out his life as best he can. He’s a bit of a celebrity, an ecological terrorist, you might say, an eco-warrior who went to prison more than once for trying to save a tree. He and his radical environmental organization Earth Forever! failed utterly. Just as decades of bad government had always hoped.
Ty Tierwater is the caretaker of the private menagerie of Maclovio Pulchris, a rock star long past his prime. Perversely, Pulchris has taken it upon himself to nurture and breed only the animals with which people don’t generally want to bother. The hyena. The peccary. The anteater. The ugly smelly animals. As befits a king of rock and roll he also keeps a small pride of lions. Up above Santa Barbara in the Santa Inez Valley. The world’s remaining zoos (and there aren’t many) depend on Mac and Ty for their cloning projects.
But it’s a losing proposition. In a world where there is, almost, nothing left to eat, only a wealthy rock star could pursue such a fatuous undertaking. Most people are just trying to survive. And the book opens with Ty wondering about just how much sense that makes.
Into Tierwater’s life, again, comes his second wife, the one who left him for good reason years before, Andrea Knowles Cotton Tierwater. And upon the creaky bones of a good marriage gone bad and then rebuilt, T.C. Boyle weaves a magical novel of tragedy and hope.
I’m extremely fond of T.C. Boyle, primarily because of his use of language. His previous books, Riven Rock, The Tortilla Curtain, and World’s End, among others, dance like drunken ecstatic celebrants of the power of words. Yet his word-play is always set within the bounds of great compassion and morality. He always has an important story to tell in his off-beat way, and at this point in his long career, he’s really getting good.
"I’m an animal man and there aren’t many of us left these days," Ty Tierwater tells us. "I’m seventy-five years old…and…I was born in the richest county in the suburbs of the biggest city in the world, in a time when there were no shortages, at least not in this country, no storms (except the usual), no acid rain, no lack of wild and jungle places to breathe deep in. Right now, I’m on my way to share some pond-raised catfish sushi with my ex-wife Andrea, hoist a few, maybe even get laid for auld lang syne. Or love. Isn’t that what she said? For love? The windshield wipers are beating in time to my arrhythmic heart, the winds are cracking their cheeks, the big 4x4 Olfputt rocking like a boat at sea—and in my head, stuck there like a piece of gum to the sole of my shoe, the fragment of a song from so long ago I can’t remember what it is or how it got there. Down the alley the ice wagon flew…Arlene took me by the hand and said, won’t you be my man?
"This is going to be interesting."
This is a short book, only two hundred and seventy-one pages, but the completeness of the souls that Boyle brings to life here is astonishing. Andrea Tierwater is an awesome force of nature, a huge sexual woman of principle and good sense. Her step-daughter, Ty’s daughter Sierra, a martyr to the Earth Forever! movement, is a joy to observe as she moves from curious child to goth teen to committed adult.
A Friend of the Earth is constructed in alternating time-frames, roughly twenty to thirty years apart. The be-misted past becomes present, flows inexorably into the horrific future, and Boyle’s perfect balance of memories of his own youth, reflections of his present middle-age, and extrapolations of the whole world’s dotage are masterful.
The book is full of fascinating incident and there are a number of big "set pieces" in the action that stun with their originality. At one point in their amusing and agonizing on-again off-again relationship, Ty and Andrea decide to live naked, entirely off the land, for a month before Ty turns himself in to the law. To prove a point. To gain some press coverage before his years in the cooler. Contrast the reality of the beginning of that episode with its conclusion:
"For the next three hours, Tierwater focused his attention on his wife’s buttocks, though the glutei were only the most prominent of the muscles in operation here. He studied her thighs, calves and ankles too, and the dimple at the base of her spine. Her shoulders dipped and arms swung free with the easy rhythm of her stride, and her hair—newly washed, brushed and conditioned—lifted and fell with a golden shimmering life of its own. He admired the sweet triangulation of her scapulae, the exquisite grip and release of the muscles of her upper back, and her heels, he loved her heels. This was all new to him, a revelation, bone and muscle working beneath the silk of the skin in a way that was nothing less than a miracle. He’d seen plenty of women with bare shoulders in his time, women playing tennis and wearing evening gowns, women in swimsuits and tank tops, women in the raw, active women, ballerinas and gymnasts, porn queens on the receiving end of a zoom lens and Jane giving birth to his daughter in the flesh, but he’d never followed a naked woman through the woods before. It was something. It really was. And it moved him somehow, the grace and good sense of it, even more than it excited him—and it did excite him, so much so that he was hard-pressed to keep from planting her in the ferns at the side of the trail and expressing his wonder in the most immediate and natural way."
And then, after a month of nearly unendurable hardship, after the awareness of how soft, indeed, man has become in his quest for "civilization" has been painfully gained, husband and wife, in every sense of those words, return. From their Eden:
"It was funny. Though he was making a spectacle of himself in a penis sheath he’d constructed of willow bark and rattlesnake skin, a man of sticks barely able to stand up straight while his wife, the thousand-year-old woman, limped along gamely at his side in a crude skirt and top made of woven grass, though it was over now and they were going to shut him up in a cage, Tierwater felt nothing but relief. He was as calm as Jesus striding out of the Sinai after this thirty days and thirty nights of temptation, and when he felt the cold steel grip of the handcuffs close over this wrists, he could have wept for joy."
This is by no means the end of the book, merely a stop on the long road that is a well-examined life. There are deaths; there are triumphs. But in the end there is the matter, above all else, of being human.
T. Coraghessan Boyle is, finally, a master. At this point in the long history of literature, as casual picture and uninflected sound assuage our restless nature, a good story well told in words is becoming—like the beasts in the rock star’s menagerie—a rare and precious thing.
We are a community of writers. We owe ourselves and our community the right-mindful practice of reading the best words we can find, that we might better write.
A Friend of the Earth is a great place to start.
A Friend of the Earth, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Viking, 2000