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A Friend of the Earth
By T. Coraghessan Boyle
Viking
288 pages, $24.95

It's not too late to stop global warming. All we have to do, according to the experts, is mobilize the whole sticky mass of humanity to swiftly deploy a vast array of solar panels, windfarms and fuel cells so that, within the next 10 to 15 years, industrial society's prodigious carbon emissions--all 6 billion annual tons of them--can be reduced to near zero. This is to be done both at home and in the impoverished developing world, all the while gently persuading the largest, most powerful and deeply entrenched industries in human history that their extinction is essential to stop ours.

Sound unlikely? Then welcome to T.C. Boyle's nightmare. The year is 2025, and global warming is very much a fact. But the greenhouse effect hasn't brought on the apocalypse--if only Boyle's characters were so lucky. There is no bang to this future, just a pathetic whimper--except when, in the latest punishing storm, a chunk of somebody's roof happens to fly off and smash into your house or decapitate your neighbor. ("Nobody's insured for weather anymore and any and all lawsuits are automatically thrown out of court, so don't even ask.")

Coffee has become prohibitively expensive, as has bacon, as has newsprint--all the
TERRY LABAN
media are electronic now. Walk into a bar, and the only thing you can order is a tall glass of sake--because about all that can be grown and fermented in the new climate is rice. "People crave meat and fish and broccoli, sweat potatoes, chard, wheat germ, the things they can't get the way they used to, and forget the Ho-Ho's and Pop Tarts and Doritos Extra-Spicy Meat-Flavored Tortilla Chips--that crap they can't give away."

The metropolises of Helsinki and "Greater Nome" now dwarf New York City. Brazil and New Zealand are desert countries. Edinburgh and Reykjavik are playgrounds for the super-rich, dotted with "tony eateries where they serve tuna garni or twenty-year-old monkfish at three thousand dollars a plate." Weird killer diseases are widespread, the worst example being something called the mucosa, a "sort of super-flu" that suffocates its victims as you "drown in your own secretions."

And still, nobody gives a shit about the environment. Yes, we may be in the absurd throes of the "sixth great extinction to hit this planet," but, come on, there's not much point in trying to stop it. Besides, "the environment is all indoors now anyway." There's technological marvel to be had--everybody's wristwatch is now a Dick Tracy-style "pictaphone," and the Internet is bigger and badder than ever. "The environment is a bore."

In the year 2000, of course, we already have unsettlingly bizarre weather, near-total apathy and dubious faith in all things high-tech; Boyle just takes it to the next, only slightly outlandish level. His real creative contribution here is Tyrone O'Shaughnessy Tierwater, the central character of A Friend of the Earth, a bitterly funny novel about a bitterly unfunny subject. This is a novel about futility.

Ty is part of the Baby Boom, and at age 75 belongs to the "young-old" demographic now made possible by regrettable advances in medicine. (The "old-old" are people in their nineties and up.) He makes his living (for almost no one can afford to retire anymore) as an animal keeper for a rock star named Maclovio Pulchris, who, with wrap-around sunglasses, drum-major outfits, germ-proof facemasks and an eccentric fondness for wildlife, resembles Michael Jackson. Ty tends to his motley assortment of miserable, pent-up and endangered lions, hyenas, anteaters and the very last Patagonian fox, all of which make up "an important--scratch that, vital--reservoir for zoo-cloning and the distribution of what's left of the major mammalian species."

It wasn't always this way. In a well-juggled and effortlessly managed series of flashbacks, we learn of Ty's hippie origins; of his tragically becoming a widower; of his middle-aged, somnambulant slide through the '70s and '80s as he assumes control of his father's real-estate fiefdom in suburban New York. At age 39, however, in the thick of a long mid-life crisis, he meets Andrea, a firebrand activist for a fringe enviro group called Earth Forever! (sound familiar?), and everything starts to change. Sierra, Ty's vegetarian and eco-minded daughter from his first marriage, is equally enchanted. Soon enough, he cashes out, moves the troops out West--and by 1989 the three of them are a happy, hell-raising family.

But Ty's return to social-consciousness is precisely where his problems begin. Protesting logging on public lands in Oregon, the Tierwaters and another comrade from Earth Forever! take direct action to blockade a timber access road. Under the cover of night, they dig themselves a shin-deep trench in the dirt road, into which they will pour quick-drying cement--and then stand, for as long as it takes. They've come prepared with hats, sandwiches, water and adult diapers.

Upon their discovery, the local sheriff and his posse aren't having any of it; there will be no mediagenic outside agitators in these parts. The protesters are handcuffed, their hats and bota bags tossed into the woods. They're made to bake in the sun for hours, waiting for ominous "men with sledgehammers" to arrive and--none too carefully--pulverize the dried concrete around their ankles. They're harassed, roughed-up, dehydrated and laughed at. Then:

Yes. And here's the irony, the kicker, the sad, deflating and piss-poor denouement. For all they went through that morning, for all the pain and boredom and humiliation, there wasn't a single reporter on hand to bear witness, because Sheriff Bob Hicks had blocked the road at the highway and wouldn't let anyone in--and so it was a joke, a big joke, the whole thing. [Ty] can remember sitting there frying like somebody's meal with a face, no ozone layer left to protect them from the sun, no water, no hat and no shade and all the trees of the world under the ax, while he worked out the conundrum in his head: if a protest falls in the woods and there's no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?

When the forlorn affair finally ends, Ty and Andrea, at the mercy of a backwoods state judge, lose custody of Sierra to a fascistic Christian foster family. They have no choice but to kidnap her back--and go on the lam. Angry and embittered, Ty embarks on a life of eco-tage, becoming an ace monkey-wrencher, a fearless green avenger. He gets bounced in and out of jail, living by the dictum, "to be a friend of the earth, you have to be an enemy of the people."

His radicalism rises an order of magnitude--as does Sierra's, who grows up to become famous in the late '90s for refusing to leave the canopy of a 1,000-year-old redwood. Ty and Andrea get their own measure of notoriety after a publicity stunt--inspired by Andrea's nudist great-grandfather, one Joseph Knowles (no relation to myself, I'm pretty sure)--in which they spend one buck-naked month in the mountains without any trappings of civilization whatsoever.

But the deep irony of the deep ecology in A Friend of the Earth is that, for all Ty's wishes to efface himself and all humanity, he can't stop worrying about his fellow humans--especially the ones in his family. He excoriates himself endlessly for letting Sierra come along on the Oregon action; regrets it even more when he's stuck in jail, separated from wife and kid. Indeed, at the heart of Boyle's story is a surprisingly poignant family drama. And, finally, what's really at stake in the good fight is not "the planet"--which will go on existing just fine--but whether people will still be able to inhabit it. Like the best of literature's misanthropes, Ty's hatred for humanity is rooted in an obtusely frustrated love for it.

That frustration is doubled upon the reader of A Friend of the Earth, who, from the outset, is endowed with the narrator's hindsight from the ruined future; we know it's hopeless--"a joke, a big joke, the whole thing." Through all the stark comedy, this is a very angry book full of rage and protest, but not in vain: This is the kind of anger, born of love, that carries good odds it will be heard as it comes crashing down in the forest.