Michael Magras

If you’re familiar with the lyrics of Jimmy Cliff’s 1972 reggae classic “The Harder They Come,” then you won’t be surprised to learn that T.C. Boyle’s new novel of the same name includes protagonists who, like the tune’s singer, would “rather be a free man in my grave / than living as a puppet or a slave.” And if you’ve ever seen the film The Harder They Come, in which the song appears, then you’ll know where Boyle got the idea for a character who was close to his now-deceased grandmother and who decides to deal drugs as a way of making money and cultivating his outlaw status.

But although the novel borrows some of the plot points of the film, Boyle is far too original and curious a writer to settle for a literary update of a Jamaican crime caper. Instead, he has taken Cliff’s anthem against oppressors trying to keep him down and created a meditation on power and freedom in an America of gun enthusiasts and Tea Party zealotry. Boyle often writes about outsiders, from the commune residents in Drop City to the sheep ranchers who inhabit a windswept island in the late nineteenth century in San Miguel. The Harder They Come is more obvious and less complex than many of his earlier works, but Boyle’s gifts for building tension and sustaining dramatic momentum make the book a fascinating read despite its shortcomings. 

Boyle's theme in this novel is the violence in American culture and its corrosive effects not just on society but also on families. The novel shifts among the perspectives of three characters: Sten Stenson; his son, Adam; and Adam’s much older lover, Sara. Sten is a seventy-year-old retired high school principal and Vietnam vet. In the book’s powerful opening section, he’s on vacation in Costa Rica with his wife, Carolee, when three young men drive up to their tour bus and demand that the elderly tourists surrender their money. Sten’s Marine training kicks in: when, in a moment of carelessness, the gang leader turns his back to him, Sten puts him in a chokehold and kills him.

By the time Sten and Carolee return to northern California, Sten’s bravery has made the national news. Even Hollywood calls, but nothing comes of the offer. The townspeople treat him like a hero. One of them recruits him to hunt down Mexican drug cartels that have brought violence to formerly pristine places like the Mendocino National Forest. In scenes such as the one in which Sten confronts one of the Mexicans—“This is America, you son of a bitch. The United States of America. You get that?”—Boyle vividly depicts Sten’s mindset, one in which violence and vigilantism are appropriate counterweights to threats against freedom.

But Sten isn’t the only character to resort to extremes. Sara Hovarty Jennings is a forty-year-old divorcée whose libertarian rants would earn plaudits from Rand Paul. To Sara, NPR is communist crap, and seat belt laws “were just another contrivance of the U.S. Illegitimate Government of America that had given up the gold standard back in 1933.” She’s the sort of anarchist who drives with expired plates and refuses to turn over her license and registration when a police officer pulls her over. 

The portrait of Sara borders on caricature, but her character takes on more shading when she picks up a hitchhiker, a young man with a shaved head and camouflage attire. He’s Adam Stensen, Sten’s twenty-five-year-old only son. Adam, a schizophrenic who lives in his deceased grandmother’s house and grows opium in a camp he has built in the woods, has adopted as his hero John Colter of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Like Colter, Adam admires the mountain men from long ago, people who were tough and savvy and independent, and detests people he calls "hostiles," a group that includes everyone from the Mexicans in the drug cartel to “Orientals.”

Sara and Adam’s relationship—they quickly become lovers—devastates Adam’s parents. They see his taking up with a forty-year-old anarchist as yet another sign of the growing mental instability he has exhibited since he was a teen. Adam becomes more confrontational and dangerous. He runs away whenever Sten, with whom he has never got along, comes to the house or tries to talk with him. And when Adam later becomes the main suspect in a countywide manhunt, Sten (like America, one might argue) is forced to wonder what he has wrought and to confront the fact that his inclination toward violence, while viewed as heroic by some, has catastrophic repercussions. 

Boyle’s portrait of Adam suffers from a fever pitch of hysteria that only gets shriller as the novel goes along. As the novel progresses, his behavior becomes more erratic: he builds a brick wall around his grandmother’s house to keep out trespassers, including his parents, and brings a rifle with him when he and Sara run an errand. “Hostiles,” he says, to explain the need for the gun. “I told you, they’re everywhere.” Adam’s extreme conduct would have been more resonant and dramatically satisfying if we had seen a gradual progression toward the paranoia that gains control over him. Several parts of The Harder They Come offer stark contrasts where subtler shadings would have been more effective.

But despite the novel’s lack of nuance, Boyle’s talent for creating tension is undiminished. One of his strengths as a writer has always been his sympathetic treatment of his characters, even when their actions are unsavory. The Harder They Come has gorgeous writing on almost every page. Sten worries that his constant thirst in Costa Rica is a sign of a disease “that would bring him down in a dark bloom of imploding cells.” A man at a Costa Rican clinic has “waxen hair flattened to his head as if it had been dripped in place one hot strand at a time.” Adam notes that Sara is driving at a steady 55, “as if the engine had a governor on it,” a funny line that also serves to dramatize Adam’s reaction to anarchist Sara’s law-abiding behavior.

If Boyle’s goal in The Harder They Come was to comment on American violence, he has succeeded with a novel that couldn’t be a more apt parallel. The book, like the arguments that tyranny-fearing gun advocates like to spout, is disturbing and inconsistent, but it’s a thunderbolt of passion that keeps you riveted.

Michael Magras is a writer living in southern Maine and a National Book Critics Circle member. His essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, BookPage, Bookreporter, and elsewhere.

The Harder They Come
by T.C. Boyle
$27.99 hardcover; ISBN: 978-0062349378
400 pages