Getting the last laugh in the dark days

A Friend of the Earth, by T. Coraghessan Boyle, Viking, 271 pages, $24.95

Review by Aaron Sarlo, October 8, 2000


While you’re reading this you might think that I am waffling. “Wait. Now he’s complaining about the book. I thought he just said he liked it.” For the record: I did like it. A lot. 1 would recommend it to anyone looking for an intelligent science fiction novel.

That said, however, I must regretfully admit the book has problems. Early into TC. Boyle’s latest, A Friend of the Earth, it becomes apparent to the point of distraction that the narrative of protagonist Ty Tierwater is that of the author on a soapbox and not merely of an interesting character telling a good story. Ty’s story takes place on two concurrent timelines that unfold in alternating chapters: the present (late 2025, early 2026), which is ultimately revealed to a sort of running denouement, and the past (mid-1989-1997) the backstory, the “this is how things ended up like they did” reflection.

Ty Tierwater, ex-activist, is 75 and living in an environmentalist’s nightmare. Global warming has violently polarized the earth’s weather—excessive periods of battering rain, months of drought and 130-plus-degree temperatures. Most species of mammals are extinct, and what is left of life on earth has begun its inevitable and untimely death, certainly a possible future for us all and a familiar setting in a science fiction novel.

As Ty begins his story well into the 21st century, we can unfortunately hear Boyle’s fingers on his keyboard back home now: Ty repeatedly represents the earth’s present state as contrast rather than fact. He says things like, “Nobody’s insured for weather anymore,” as if he’s talking to a reader from our time, this year, and not a reader from his time (where he lives) who would already know that. This opinionated narrative becomes almost anachronistic and may be the book’s most annoying blemish. But sadly it is not its only one. A Friend of the Earth can be heavy-handed at times and redundant at others. The alternating chapters toggle pretentiously back and forth between first and third person narrators. The Noah’s Ark parallels are ridiculous, though thankfully understated

But, criticism aside, it is a thoroughIv entertaining novel. A Friend of the Earth is a book of brilliant paradoxes: Here is old man Ty, surviving in a dying world, managing Mac the retired pop star’s private collection of extremely endangered species, unloved, alone. And here is Ty: 44-year-old father of a soon to be legendary activist, husband to a founding member of Earth Foreverl, a staunch proponent of ecological terrorism as the last resort to save the earth from its date with the odd-numbered chapters

Ty’s methods are highly illegal socially immoral. Old Ty is desperate for newly resurfaced Andrea his ex-wife who thrives in the alternate chapters as young Ty’s secretly conniving wife, effortlessly turning his sacrifices into her private gain. Young Ty is emotional and irrational, often making grave mistakes in the towering face of oppression. He is playing out his part as a member of E.F! purely as personal acts of passion: Passion for his beliefs, passion for the constant companionship of his wife and daughter.

When he is repeatedly jailed for his incendiary behavior he does not concede that more thought and better planning should be put into his acts. Nor is he rehabilitated. Instead he decides that unseen forces are intent on oppressing him. This, of course, only fuels young Ty’s idealistic fantasy that damaging logging equipment is going to both make a bold statement that will be heard around the world and make the logging company stop logging.

Then, of course, that lack of wisdom makes Ty the elderly zookeeper all the more desperate to regain a love lost to impetuosity on a planet dying of nature’s own little demonstration. The paradox is clear. Ty acts foolishly and with little foresight. He demands tangible results to be delivered to him right now. Ty’s views supersede entire ways of life. Ty would rather be loved than responsible. Ty is a key player in the death of humanity. Ty is a friend to the earth.

The book is immensely involving. It is a hilarious and inventive look at the individual’s innate fear of technological progress, not unlike Don DeLillo’s White Noise, although decidedly less potent and certainly not as terrifying. This novel belongs in the same class as many of Phillip K. Dick’s novels.

Modern science fiction is built on stories of technology personified as antagonist, of manifest destiny armed to the teeth, oblivious of its own power, and of consumerism as an incurable disease. There are so many novels like this that they make the genre cliche. And even though A Friend of the Earth explores similar themes, it never once slips into this cliched territory. It is an insightful and original book from the very first page to its poignant conclusion.


Aaron Sarlo is a freelance writer who lives in Little Rock.