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book review: a friend of the earth

by Aaron Sarlo

Published October, 2000

While you’re reading this you might think that I am waffling. “Wait. Now he’s ragging on the book. I thought he just said he liked it…” For the record: I did like it. A lot. I would recommend it to anyone looking to read an intelligent science fiction novel. I had never even heard of T.C. Boyle when I sat down to read this, but now I would buy the guy a beer and say, “Great book, T.C.!” Because it is.

That being said, however, I must regretfully admit the book has problems. Early into T.C. Boyle’s latest, “A Friend of the Earth”, it becomes apparent to the point of distraction that the narrative of protagonist, Ty Tierwater, is that of the author unintentionally on a soapbox and not merely of an interesting character telling a good story. Ty’s takes place on two concurrent timelines, that unfold in alternating chapters: the present (late 2025 – early 2026) which is ultimately revealed to be a sort of running denouement, and the past (mid 1989 – 1997) – the back story, the “this is how things ended up like they did” reflection. Ty Tierwater, ex-activist, is seventy-five years old, living in his environmentalist nightmare. Global warming has violently polarized the earth’s weather patterns – excessive periods of battering rain are slabbed against months of dehydration and 130+ degree temperatures. The extreme winds have rewritten public housing law. Most species of mammals are extinct, and what is left of life on earth has begun its inevitable and untimely death. Certainly (in this election year) a possible future for us all, and definitely a familiar setting in a science fiction novel. As Ty begins his story well into the 21st century, we can unfortunately hear Boyle’s pen on the paper back home: Ty repeatedly represents the earth’s present state as contrast rather than fact. He says things like, “Nobody’s insured for weather anymore,” as if he’s talking to a reader from our time, this year, and not a reader from his time (where he lives) who would already know that. This opinionated narrative becomes almost anachronistic and may be the book’s most annoying blemish. But sadly it is not its only one. “A Friend of the Earth” can be heavy-handed at times and redundant at others. The alternating chapters toggle pretentiously back and forth between the 1st and 3rd persons (with sprinkles of 1st person inside the 3rd person narrative – likewise distracting.). I saw the bloody disemboweling coming as soon as chapter one, and the Noah’s Ark parallels were ridiculous, though thankfully understated. And the unfortunate words ‘Viagra Supra’ are in this book. Man, that hurts.

See, now I feel like an ass because this was a thoroughly entertaining novel and I would read it again. “A Friend of the Earth” is a book of brilliant paradoxes: here is old man Ty, living in a dying world, managing Mac the retired pop star’s private collection of extremely endangered species, unloved, alone. And here is Ty: forty-year-old father of a soon to be legendary activist, husband to a founding member of Earth Forever!, a staunch proponent of ecological terrorism as the last resort to save the earth from its date with the odd-numbered chapters. His methodology is highly illegal and socially immoral. He is a criminal of the people. Old Ty is desperate for newly resurfaced Andrea, his ex-wife who thrives in the alternate chapters as young Ty’s secretly conniving wife, effortlessly turning his sacrifices into her private gain. Young Ty is emotional and irrational, often making grave mistakes in the towering face of oppression. He is playing out his part as a member of E.F.! purely as personal acts of passion: passion for his beliefs, passion for the constant companionship of his wife and daughter.  When he is repeatedly jailed for his incendiary behavior he does not concede that more thought and better planning should be put into his mini-coups. Nor is he rehabilitated. Instead he decides that unseen forces are intent on oppressing him, when in fact those unseen forces really just want him to go away. This, of course, only fuels young Ty’s idealistic fantasy that damaging logging equipment is going to both make a bold statement that will be heard around the world and frustrate that logging company into early retirement. Then of course, that lack of wisdom makes Ty the elderly zookeeper all the more desperate to regain a love lost to impetuosity on a planet dying of nature’s own little demonstration. The paradox is clear. Ty is without posturing. Ty act foolishly and with little foresight. Ty demands tangible results to be delivered to him right now. Ty’s views supercede entire communities’ ways of life. Ty would rather be loved than responsible. Ty is a key player in the death of humanity. Ty is a friend to the earth.

“A Friend of the Earth” is immensely involving. I breezed through it in no time, barely able to put it down long enough to brew another pot of coffee. It is a hilarious and inventive look at the individual’s innate fear of technological progress not unlike Don DeLillo’s White Noise, although decidedly less potent and certainly not as terrifying. This novel belongs in the same class as many of Phillip K. Dick’s novels. Modern day Science Fiction is built on stories of technology personified as antagonist, of manifest destiny armed to teeth – oblivious of its own power, and of consumerism as an incurable disease. Novels like this are so abundant they make the genre cliché. And the only way to get new ones like them that are actually good and have important things to be say read is to keep them valid and readable. T.C. Boyle has done that in spades with this fine book. If you’re a fan of Vonnegut, Dick, or DeLillo, do yourself a favor and read “A Friend of the Earth”.

Just be prepared to forgive it for featuring the word ‘detritus’ four times.