The Harder They Come: A Novel
“a complex novel of impeccable pace, editing, and scene direction . . . compelling and potboilingly readable, a thriller-manqué.”
Boyle’s latest novel begins, as it ends, with nature. The first sentence:
“There was no slant to the sun—it was just there, overhead, burning, making him sweat, making his underwear bind and the shirt stick to his back as if it had been glued on . . .”
And the last:
“He hit it. Hit it squarely, hit it hard, and it wasn’t a great shot or even a good one, but there it was, looping up into the great vast ocean of the sky, and it kept on going and kept on going.”
This recalls the final lines of Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Boyle is, however, more enthralled by Crane. The imagery, and the ideas for which they are a bulwark, is a reworking of “The Open Boat,” which ends: “When it came night, the white waves paced to and fro in the moonlight, and the wind brought the sound of the great sea’s voice to the men on the shore, and they felt that they could then be interpreters.”
Humanity is small and insignificant next to Nature, which we can neither predict nor control but only, if properly attuned, interpret and understand. Boyle is often heralded as a realist, hyperrealist even, a Chuck Close of words, with periodic flights of surrealism. In truth, his work is more closely aligned with naturalism.
This impulse, so common to Buddhist art, did not begin in America with the naturalists. Calvinist preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards, in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” a sermon of 1741, argues that God “holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire.” American deist, transcendental, romantic and realistic traditions tended to agree, despite a rampant strain of individualism.
Boyle receives this idea not only from the distant past—and from the naturalism of Crane, London, Norris, Bierce, Dreiser, Sinclair, Garland, Rolvaag—but also from the socially-minded tradition of Chopin, Wright, Farrell, and Dos Passos, as well as from Cather, Anderson, Steinbeck, Mailer, assorted Beats and eco-lettrists. We are caretakers of the earth, Boyle argues, not its comptrollers. We are tourists here.
Hence, The Harder They Come begins with a couple on holiday. Stereotypically, they are white, elderly, cruise-going. Their conflict may be universal, but the characters are not static types, or rather Boyle toys with the notion of archetype, cliché and the expectations of genre, formula, mode.
Sten, the central character, is a double-barreled authority icon—former high school principal and ex-Marine. If his public identities are situated in the past, then his guiding query becomes, What am I now? Of course, Boyle asks this same question of the nation and its citizens. He examines America in Form and Matter: the natural world and the sphere of ideological constructs.
Sten is named for a British machine gun. He is a veteran of the Vietnam conflict and, as such, an experienced practitioner of combat travel, geopolitical tourism, military-industrial getaways. These added textures are classic Boyle. Poignant, comic, bathetic. Though hardly a two-dimensional killing machine, Sten is, to be sure, brave, strong and decisive. He’s quick to lead, to act, to exert control. Although often successful in this, ultimately he can’t control anything: nature, family, holiday, community, body, principles, the intractable sphere of emotion, not even the violence that’s such an intrinsic and powerful part of him. He controls nothing but, like many, sees himself as dominant. Sten’s self-perception is so Godlike, in fact, that he names his only son Adam.
Sten is a thoughtful warrior. In the beginning, however, he is the ungainly tourist stomping through foreign lands with big American feet. Sten and his wife Carolee eat “at an authentic cafe” that seems far from real. Boyle is examining the exotic and our perception of it: “That these people, this place, existed independently of him and everything he knew had astonished him all over again, as if he’d gone outside himself, a ghost drifting through another reality.” The Other does not feel quite real, though Sten knows this is falsehood and delusion.
Authentic is a guiding word in the novel. The tourist searches for but can never find it because the self-conscious quest for authenticity is intrinsically futile. We can’t find something real any more than we can try to be real. It is a state of being, not an object to be discovered, photographed, colonized. Boyle implies that Tourism—as with self-actualization, ideology, activism—is often a substitute for religion. The liturgical airplane journey, the sacrament of local cuisine. Naturally, these are religions for the affluent. Salvation can be purchased with an around-the-world ticket, like the Plenary Indulgences once sold by the Catholic Church.
Stylistically, The Harder They Come is a celebration of language and a skillful deployment of jarring imagery. Observing a dead body, from the violence and its aftermath that kick-starts the novel, “all [Sten] could make out were the soles of the man’s feet, jutting up like parentheses enclosing a phrase he didn’t want to decipher.”
Boyle has always been a master of the long sentence, the complex but never convoluted syntax, the footnotes and subordinated phrases brought to the fore and made as substantial as the main clause:
“At first his water wouldn’t come, another trick of old age—your bladder feels like a hot-air balloon and then you stand over the toilet for ten minutes before the firth burning dribble releases itself—but he employed the countermeasure of clearing his mind, of thinking of anything but the matter at hand, of the boat and his berth and the way Carolee had looked in the new negligee she’d bought expressly for the trip and what he’d been able to do about it, and then, finally, the relief came.”
This sentence is noteworthy not only for its formal beauty and the manner in which sex is handled with originality and nuance, but also for the sheer weight of information compressed into such a compact space. The reader discovers that this is a novel about aging and marriage, the main character’s relationship to both, and to his own body, as well as the shape and heft of these things as they trudge through Sten’s consciousness.
A heightened sense of reality pervades the novel. Though the individual details are plausible, the writing is never realistic in the conventional sense. The characters and scenarios are often exaggerated or cartoonish, which can make it difficult to care about them, but for the most part this stylization works well within the context of Boyle’s style, plot and subject matter.
The novel is populated by a motley assortment of criminals, pioneers, patriots, frontiersmen, earth-lovers, anarchists, libertarians, and anti-government crackpots. Boyle meditates upon the nature of, and conflict between, individual liberty and the State’s sovereign authority. He also examines how ideas are willfully misrepresented by those too immature, shortsighted or irresponsible to recognize the natural limits of freedom and sectarian rhetoric. These characters are intriguing, troubled, contradictory, surprising and often unlikeable.
Adam, Sten’s son, suffers from mental health issues that go largely untreated. He commits a wide range of crimes and defies authority at every turn, but his putative war against society is little more than war with himself. His apparent political stance against society belies the fact that he is scared of, and disappointed with, his place in it. Adam, haunted by “the wheel” inside himself, is a direct descendant of Chief Bromden, the schizophrenic Native American from Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Next, who sees Nurse Ratched as a giant tractor filled with cogs and wheels.
Despite a clutch of unresolved narrative tensions—tourism, drug cartels—and female characters who are never quite as three-dimensional as the men, Boyle’s novel is a formidable retelling of the Oedipal myth. The son both rejects and becomes the father. The girlfriend is a substitute mother. The title itself, aside from nodding to the West Indies through which Sten tours, is positively Aristotelian, shorthand for the tragic hero’s fate.
The Harder They Come is a complex novel of impeccable pace, editing, and scene direction, but it’s also compelling and potboilingly readable, a thriller-manqué. As with the novels of Haruki Murakami or the voice of Oum Kalthoum, Boyle is adept at creating a clear, specific mood—in this case, impending doom—and sustaining it throughout. As with many “literary” novels, we admire its technique but, unlike so many others—stultifying, inert, the flesh shaved off by the table-edge of an MFA workshop—we also quite enjoy reading it.