28 May 2016

The Harder They Come, by T. C. Boyle

The first part of this book takes place in Central America. Sten Stensen, a recently retired high-school principal and Vietnam veteran, and his wife Carolee, are on vacation in Costa Rica. They go with a group on what is to be a nature walk in the jungle, but a tragedy ensues during which Stensen kills a man with his bare hands.

I had a strong feeling that I had read this first part of the book before. It may have, for example, been printed in Harper's as a stand-alone story, or perhaps in their "Readings" section. It works as a short story, in my opinion.

The next parts are placed in Northern California, in an area that is much like Humboldt County, but I think somewhat fictionalized. Sten and Carolee return home, where their son Adam is progressively demonstrating that he is dangerously mentally ill. Adam's actions and how they affect his family and a young woman who befriends him are the framework for the rest of the book.

Violence is the overall theme of this novel. Adam sees himself as a sort of survivalist commando resisting forces that will imprison or limit him, and he is armed to the teeth. His delusions lead him to murder, and during most of the last part of the book he is eluding an increasingly larger manhunt.

Mental illness, apparently schizophrenia, is another important element in the plot. Adam is seriously deluded and certainly fulfills the "danger to himself and others" requirement, but as will happen, society has completely failed to diagnose, treat, or protect him -- or to protect others from him. The frustration of being the parent of a person in this situation is well illustrated in this book.

New York Times Review

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