Blue Skies: A Novel
Fact: Global warming will cause rising temperatures and sea levels, stronger storms, desertification, water shortages, heat waves, flooding and more, creating innumerable “climate refugees.” Since we’ve failed to curtail our emissions, these things are inevitable and, without a doubt, provide material for creative novelists who enjoy creating dystopian futures for our beleaguered planet. Count in their midst the veteran T.C. Boyle, who has long themed books (Friend of the Earth, Tooth and Claw, The Tortilla Curtain) around our uneasy relation to nature.
Blue Skies is about an extended family, based in Florida and California. Florida floods, and California is hit with a heat wave and drought, and several generations experience the trials of Job. Boyle has always been adept at creating believable worlds populated by people experiencing high anxiety, and that skill is vividly on display here. There are snakes, and they are chasing us out of the Garden of Eden.
Ottilie and Frank, Californians, have two kids, Cooper (an entomologist who lives near them) and the underemployed Cat, who’s uneasily living down by the water somewhere near Jacksonville. Before too many pages are expended, Cooper has lost an arm to a bite from a tick, the very insect his girlfriend studies; and Cat, with her self-absorbed influencer husband gone most of the time as she awaits her first baby, has noticed rising water around her house-on-stilts. Can things get worse? Of course they can.
Cat buys a boa constrictor, enraging the very eco-correct (to the point of being a bore) Cooper—who notes the role of this invasive species in destroying the Everglades. Snakes, floods, disappearing wildlife, drought, ticks, it’s all a recipe for a Biblical plague, and Boyle has clearly concluded we’re facing one. The science is on his side, too, though with this author there’s always a touch of the surreal.
Few novelists are as adept as Boyle at setting balls in motion and playing them out to sometimes grim conclusions. But his books are always entertaining, littered as they are with the minute effluvia of modern American life. The time is the near future, but this version of the United States is going to be very familiar. Cars get stuck in traffic jams, clerks are annoying, airlines cheap out (“There was no longer any pretense of service or legroom or amenities, even in business class”), friends start out promising but turn out to be nefarious.
In among the set pieces are serious meditations on the state of the planet, as his characters—particularly the Californians—love to talk about it. The motor-mouthed Cooper is certainly annoying, but he’s also invariably right about the unfortunate choices we’ve made.
Regular readers of Boyle’s work will be in familiar territory. It certainly doesn’t look like there’s a happy ending in the offing, what with the relentless visitation of fire and rain, but you never know with this literary trickster.