For his 13th novel, the American author T Coraghessan Boyle turns a beady eye onto the type of eco-drama that, previously, only Carl Hiaasen has managed to bring off to general satisfaction. Hiaasen, however consistently brilliant, now has a serious rival. Having already written both magisterially and waspishly about the Kellogg family, Frank Lloyd Wright, Alfred Kinsey, Mexican immigration and a hippie colony on its last legs, Boyle now proves he is equally at home in the troubled waters of animal rights and conservation imperatives.
At bay here are some human-introduced black rats on the tiny island of Anacapa off the coast of California. They are making life difficult for the rare, indigenous flora and fauna. Dr Alma Takesue of the National Park Service is determined to eradicate them before they destroy what is still left. Dave LaJoy, the wealthy middle-aged founder of the pressure group FPA (For the Protection of Animals) and a man in sore need of a course in anger management, is equally set on stopping her every move.
A rich, meaty story follows. Detailed descriptions of rat behavior, the ways of feral pigs and the depredations of the brown snake rub shoulders with hosts of characters, none of whom fall into easy stereotypes. Both sides of the main argument are given a fair hearing. Dr Takesue comes to realise that excessive veneration of the natural order sometimes co-exists with a chilly attitude towards men and women, while LaJoy finally sees his zeal prove counter-productive. Both end up looking small compared to the animals they are so engaged with. They simply get on with eating, sleeping and copulating while all around them over-concerned humans are worrying themselves into new pitches of unhappiness.
Boyle is so excessively fluent that he sometimes gives the impression of not knowing when to stop. Enter a minor character, and readers may soon know more about them than they might need. When anyone takes a trip in a yacht, await a flood of circumstantial detail as a storm whips up and the engine cuts out. A text that jumps backwards and forwards in time also risks leaving some readers as occasionally stranded as are most of the characters in their own lives.
But these are minor cavils. In an age when other writers are in retreat from any appearance of being fully in control of what is happening, Boyle remains defiantly at the authorial helm, knowing exactly where he is going and what his characters are thinking and feeling. His dialogue crackles and his eye is unforgiving when it comes to picking out less admirable aspects of modern American life. Conservation issues in real life can at times seem more worthy than gripping. In Boyle's hands, they erupt off the page and won't lie down until the end of a long novel that is as entertaining as it is provocative.