FICTION: "San Miguel," by T.C. Boyle.

  • Article by: JOHN FREEMAN / SPECIAL TO THE STAR TRIBUNE
  • Updated: September 22, 2012 - 12:43 PM

Two families try to start over on a remote island off the California coast.

SAN MIGUEL by: T.C. Boyle.

Like Annie Proulx and Cormac McCarthy, T.C. Boyle hasn't just invented a fictional universe. His books have become an ecosystem, and in each new work, that landscape is the ultimate character.

If a Boyle story takes place in a desert, there's bound to be a violent death; if in a futuristic world, a dystopian perversion. In Boyle's universe, Mother Nature always gets the last laugh.

So when "San Miguel," his latest historical novel, opens on a sea-swept island off the coast of California, there is little doubt that the people who find themselves there will have little choice about how they got there.

Marantha Waters, twice married, childless and dying of consumption, didn't want to come -- her grasping, sheep-farming husband took her to San Miguel. And he's determined to remain until their shearing operation has made some headway.

Boyle is one of the most stylish, electric writers alive. Here, though, he puts away all the razzle-dazzle of his toolkit to write his way into the heart and mind of a woman with diminishing horizons.

The chapters of this book are short, the events each one portrays consist of small gradations of the same -- a traveler passes, a meal is taken, more blood is coughed up. Boyle's sentences have a woolen solidity. A feeling of claustrophobia sets in.

Just when the reader's patience has run thin, though, things begin to happen, events born from boredom. An affair upends the balance of the house. One day Marantha runs out into the relentless rain and collapses.

"By the time Ida found her -- 'Mrs Waters, Ma'am? Are you out there?' -- she was sprawled in the grass like a broken umbrella, chilled through and coughing so violently it felt as if her lungs had been turned inside out."

It is impossible for a dying person to be unaware of the way we all go. And yet a farm, at least one that is built on the prospect of getting as much from land as it will give, and then more, comes from the false promise of accretion.

"San Miguel" is a book about the fallacy of more, of ownership, of second starts. It is also a prequel to Boyle's recent novel, "When the Killing's Done," a book which unfolded in the present day and lampooned the way even preservationists try to control nature.

These two novels form a secret history of the Channel Islands and their visitors. That's all we are in Boyle's ecosystem. Farmers, celebrities, botanists -- all come wanting something. All leave, as we do, and the waves break endlessly on. It's a brisk vision, and in "San Miguel" Boyle has delivered it in a tale where nature's violence is treated as a judgment, perhaps as it should be.

John Freeman is the editor of Granta and the author of "The Tyranny of E-mail."

  • SAN MIGUEL

    By: T.C. Boyle.

    Publisher: Viking, 367 pages, $27.95.

    Review: In this prequel to his "When the Killing's Done," T.C. Boyle puts away his usual razzle-dazzle and writes into the hearts and minds of his doomed main characters.

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