When the Killing’s Done

T.C. Boyle

People can be real shits to one another.

That’s the big one, but honestly, there are more legitimate themes in T.C. Boyle’s newest novel, When the Killing’s Done, than I can count. Among them: Evil begets evil; mankind is an arrogant animal; nature is apathetic. I think Boyle wanted to get a lot of complex ideas across with this book, and he did an admirable job.

I spent almost as much time contemplating the underlying meaning of the prose as I did scanning lines of letters and symbols across the page.

When the Killing’s Done is about the confrontation between animal rights activists and land managers. The setting is the Northern Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara and Oxnard, Calif. National Park Service scientists want to remove invasive animal species—rats, feral pigs and others—from the islands. These creatures arrived because of mankind’s influence, and they’ve nearly destroyed the islands’ delicate ecosystems. The activists believe that humans have no right to kill animals, any animals for almost any reason.

Each side is absolutely convinced of its own correctness, acting on matters of faith-based assumptions with all the disregard of fundamentalist religious zealots. The biologist believes people who don’t see her point of view are ignorant and poorly informed. The animal rights activist believes the people who don’t see his point of view are stupid and evil.

Boyle is great at telling this sort of ethically ambiguous, omniscient narrator story. I often wondered if I was accurately interpreting his feelings toward the issue of species management, but I was never certain I pegged it. That makes it a fun story no matter which side of this issue the reader comes down on.

He certainly designed the main animal rights activist, Dave LaJoy, as the villain. If he is not the antagonist exactly, he is an asshole, the kind of guy who’d slow down at a yellow light to force the car behind to stop at a red. The kind of guy who abuses restaurant staff. He’s also sincerely concerned about how people treat animals, although his change of mind toward animals’ treatment had a lot of similarities to a religious conversion. But then, who doesn’t like people who are good to animals?

Alma Boyd Takesue is written as a more sympathetic character, but even she seems ambitious and soulless, although her character begins to question whether people have a right to decide the lives and deaths of animals near the end of the book. It might have something to do with her being forced to decide about her own abortion.

The novel begins and ends with stories of shipwrecks. It took me a while to assign a reason as to why the author felt Alma Boyd Takesue had to be the granddaughter of the sole survivor of a wreck. There were obvious parallels between Takesue’s pregnant mother’s survival and the survival of the rats from a much earlier shipwreck, the wreck that marooned them on Anacapa, started their ecosystem dominance, and brought them under the exterminator’s eyes more than 130 years later.

But larger metaphorically than the island’s rats is the population of the human race, about to reach 7 billion. The human race has destroyed or fundamentally changed every ecosystem we’ve encountered. And if Takesue and the first rat to make it to Anacapa Island are parallel, then the population of humanity and the population of rats are parallel as well. And that suggests that even though Boyle writes the biologist as the more sympathetic character, at the very bottom of his argument lies the question as to whether humanity is an invasive species that should be exterminated.

This novel is compelling and entertaining. The 369 pages flew right by. It’s readable in its style and provocative in its complexity and ambiguity. When the Killing’s Done will almost certainly challenge the readers’ perception of whether mankind is the Earth’s ultimate survivor and master, or just a rat on a ship sinking far from shore.