What do rats and pigs have in common?

T. C. Boyle answers that question in his 2011 novel When the Killing’s Done about the decision to eliminate them from two of the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara, California (Anacapa and Santa Cruz, respectively). Neither species was native to the islands, and both had caused havoc among the native populations because they did so well once they were introduced. The Park Service decided the only way to get rid of them was to poison them (rats) and shoot them (feral pigs). Both decisions created a lot of controversy, with many people arguing that killing one species in order to save another is inhumane and is playing God in a way that doesn’t make sense, while others feared that species on this American version of the Galapagos Islands would be eaten out of existence in the same way mongoose have removed many birds from Hawaii.

Boyle examines this controversy through the plot and characters in this novel. Boyle’s antagonists are radical vegetarians and vegans, who believe the rats and pigs are as worthy of salvation as the cute foxes and bald eagles. They argue too that even though the population balance may have shifted, the endangered species had not been completely wiped out.

The island fox is a critically endangered species.

The island fox is a critically endangered species. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The author tries to bring the controversy to life by creating two adversaries: Alma Takesue, a biologist with the National Park Service and whose grandmother was stranded with all the rats on Anacapa after a shipwreck; and Dave LaJoy, a somewhat crazy entrepreneur with anger issues, who organizes against the killing. Dave’s girlfriend, Alise, grew up on Santa Cruz Island. A cast of characters is brought in to give some history and context to the story, such as Anise’s mother, Rita, who worked as a cook at a sheep ranch on Santa Cruz Island,  and Alma’s grandmother and mother.

As usual, T. C. Boyle writes beautiful and compelling prose. As in Drop City, he brings in more side stories than a circus. I enjoyed the biology and the history, and I loved some of Dave LaJoy’s stupid antics. Mr. Boyle raises important questions about how we manage this earth we live on. How important are endangered species, and how much effort should be put into controlling invasive species which threaten fragile populations, such as those of these islands?

While I liked When the Killing’s Done, I didn’t find this novel nearly as compelling as the first T. C. Boyle novel I ever read,  Tortilla Curtain, whose tragic tale will remain burned in my memory for a long time. In a way, I keep reading T. C. Boyle hoping that the next novel will measure up. Anyway, I think the reason that this novel didn’t engage me as much was the weakness of the protagonist and her relationship with her boyfriend, Tim. It was clear from the beginning that this relationship had no glue to it. Okay, fine, but Tim hardly appears in the novel: when he bails it feels anticlimactic. And she never really forms close relationships with anyone else. Perhaps she is portrayed too realistically, in that she is back and forth between her office and various research stations, but I think she would be much more compelling if she had a side-kick or two that she was always interacting with. This could have been Tim, or she could have had an affair, or children she worried about, or something. Or he could have kept Alma and Anises’ mothers engaged in the drama.

I also thought that LaJoy was a little over-the top. His attempts to foil the killings are fun, but they are pretty unbelievable. Well, unbelievable until you read the lengths real people go to in order to prevent something they believe is wrong, especially when they cannot control their anger. All in all, this was a good read and I will probably try some more T. C. Boyle.

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