Pin It
Submit to Reddit

Island adventure: San Miguel 

T.C. Boyle plays it straight

Keep an eye out for Mitt Romney calling for millionaires to pay higher taxes. And, of course, Barack Obama demanding the repeal of Obamacare.

While we're at it, look for the Kardashians and Keith Richards to preach abstinence from sex and drugs, Jerry Bruckheimer to churn out quirky, independent dramedies and Rihanna to go country. Put the Cubs in the World Series and Warren Buffett on welfare. Dump those shares of Apple and Google and load up on Facebook instead.

What disturbance in the force drives such madness? Well, for bookish types, the first sign of the apocalypse has just arrived in the form of T.C. Boyle playing it straight. The author of madcap tales such as The Road to Wellville and Budding Prospects, a master of verbal gymnastics and black humor, now hands us an earnest work of historical fiction, one devoid of the slightest literary hijinks.

San Miguel - by T.C. Boyle (Viking, $27.95, 367 pages)
  • San Miguel
    by T.C. Boyle (Viking, $27.95, 367 pages)

San Miguel tells the story of two determined women, separated by several decades, shepherding their families through hardscrabble lives on the same island off the California coast. Based on actual diaries and accounts of two real-life families, with considerable dialogue and scene setting engineered by Boyle, the novel traces the fortunes of the Waters family in the 1880s and the Lesters in the 1930s. Both are lured by the remote chances for fortune hunting by harvesting wool on a remote island visible but distant from Santa Barbara.

Boyle got the idea while researching his previous novel, set in a different part of the Channel Islands.

The island of San Miguel occupies the northernmost portion of the Channel Islands. Treeless, windy, dusty and deadly hostile to most forms of vegetation, it looms as a haunting character in its own right, cloaking the families in fog, rain and isolation.

Marantha Waters arrives in 1888, prodded by her husband, a Civil War veteran eager to escape the bustle of city life. A young Irish cook, Marantha's adopted teenage daughter and a ranch hand of the same age accompany the Waters. Marantha, at 38, presides over a creaky home while fighting a losing battle with consumption. Or, as Boyle describes it, "The room was uninhabitable, as crude and ugly a place as she'd ever seen in her life. ... This wasn't a room — it was just an oversized box, a pen, and at the rear of it were two bedrooms the size of anchorites' cells and an even cruder door that gave onto a lean-to addition that served as the kitchen."

Doesn't sound like Architectural Digest will be stopping by any time soon.

A shorter segment of the book continues the story of Edith, the adopted daughter, a stubborn girl of fierce ambition who longs to escape the clutches of her domineering stepfather.

Boyle resumes his tale in 1930. Elise Lester, who, like Marantha in the earlier sequence, is also 38, is a former New York librarian recently rescued from spinsterhood. She brings a happier marriage, but also involving a wounded war veteran, to San Miguel. Her beloved Herbie, buoyed by the subsequent birth of two daughters during the Lesters' island years, revels in media interest as a flood of curious reporters discover the family's pioneering lifestyle. The family is, inevitably, dubbed the Swiss Family Lester.

The powerful indifference of nature, along with the law of unintended consequences, has always been one of Boyle's persistent themes. So while the author resists the temptation to turn carnival barker, he retains a keen sense of the folly and futility of so much human behavior. And he never blanches.

Early in the book, Edith, Marantha's adopted daughter, agonizes when her pet lamb strangles itself while tethered to a leg of the stove. Upon discovering the dead animal, her stepfather "looked down at it, at the staring eyes and the ragged red line at its throat where the chord had dug in, its legs splayed and tongue like some black wedge of meat it had tried to swallow." During one of Marantha's coughing fits, she hacks up blood "in a fine spray, plucked from the fibers of her lungs and pumped full of air as if it were perfume in an atomizer."

Another animal death, of baby mice, stirs similar dread and adds a bizarre twist once Herbie and Elise come to the island many years later. Herbie, who never thinks twice about killing sheep for dinner, agonizes after three mice he discovers in the shed, and houses in a sock, die. The World War I veteran digs a fresh grave and scratches out a small marker bearing the inscription, "R.I.P. Wee Ones."

What sounds silly — is Boyle flirting with his signature style? — steers clear of hyperbole and into the depths of damaged psyches. Elise, the reader learns, thought "the whole business was odd, surpassingly odd, the first rift between them, the first thin trembling hairline fracture in the solid armature of them, husband and wife ..."

Later, a hobbled, beloved horse will be shot and tossed off a cliff. Boyle is unsparing in his examination of these lives. And his precise pen never flags. He describes a breeze as "cold and insinuating," notes a mule with "skittish eyes and ears standing up as straight as two bookends" and nails the bleakness of a funeral filled with "the usual comfortless words." Speaking of words, Boyle's vocabulary delights even as it sends a reader scurrying for the dictionary. Succedaneum, friable and exegete (the latter a person who explains difficult texts) all find suitable spots in San Miguel.

The randomness of life, the unique strangeness of scraping by on a primitive island within sight of the modern world and the snap of Boyle's writing make the novel a bittersweet, extended parable on the ephemeral, often futile reality faced by all. Fans of Boyle may yearn for the author's typical brio, but the zest of his descriptions ("the susurrus of the spray against the boat," "an odd farrago of forks and spoons") provides more than a hint that the old T.C. can only lie dormant for so long. In other words, whatever he writes, and no matter the style, it's going to be worth reading. Boyle, you might say, occupies a literary island of his own making.

Pin It
Submit to Reddit


More »

Search Events

© 2019 Womack Digital, LLC
Powered by Foundation