T. Coraghessan Boyle

The author of "A Friend of the Earth" considers "ecotage," talks frankly about mosquitoes and describes our barren future. Think condos.

Published December 11, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

Before writing his early, PEN/Faulkner Award-winning novel "World's End," T. Coraghessan Boyle researched the Indian and Dutch history of his childhood town of Peekskill, N.Y. "The Tortilla Curtain" -- which chronicles the painful intersection between an impoverished Mexican couple without green cards and their suburban counterpoints who live in gated California communities -- emerged as he weighed the issue of illegal immigration.

Naturally, after reading several tomes about our worsening environmental predicament -- and finding himself utterly depressed and horrified -- Boyle didn't go downtown in a white robe to tell passersby the end is near. Instead, he used his timber-size sense of humor to pen his brand-new fiction, "A Friend of the Earth."

Boyle laughs often, even while we discuss environmental degradation. But he also tends to fix on me a dead-on, apocalyptic stare (look at the book jacket photos) as soon as he finishes answering a question. Not only does the chilling look signal the termination of an answer, it resonates with its own interrogation: "These issues I'm examining within myself, what kind of thought have you given them? Where are your moral boundaries fixed?"

"A Friend of the Earth" is set partially in the future, yet there are only a few cyberpunk trappings. Did you consciously try to stay away from something like that?

I did purposefully stay away from talking about technological advances much in this book, because I'm not a sci-fi guy. I've never read any sci-fi. I'm more interested in creating a kind of literary, satirical future -- like, maybe, if Jonathan Swift were around, he'd do something like this.

So the machine part of it didn't interest me much, except the sorts of machines in the '80s and '90s that we had, like the feller buncher and so on that we use specifically in logging. I'm much more interested in going back to nature. Is that possible?

Maybe I'll think about machines in another novel. In my basement lab I'm always working on technological advances -- like the automobile. You know the parking situation? You know the little "blippo" you have to lock your car? I've designed one now where you "blip" it and the car immediately shrinks to the size of a wallet. The technological glitch is, it's a really heavy wallet. So I'm working on it still.

Do you see any hope for us collectively as a species?

Not a single breath of hope. No. And this is an informed opinion because, by the way, I've read all the environmental tracts. And boy, that's why the public doesn't want to know about it, because it is so bleak. I can't find any hope in anything anybody's writing about the environment, and they're all trying to tell us cautionary tales, too. But as Ty Tierwater says in this book, "I'm not preaching. It's too late for that."

And I really, truly believe that it's the population pressure that's killing us -- no matter what we do. We've made tremendous advances in a higher consciousness of the environment in the last 30 years or so, since Earth Day, since [ecologist and writer] Rachel Carson. We recycle, we try to turn the lights off, all of that. But I think it's way too late to have any impact on a world with 6 billion people. And so I feel guilty about eating, breathing, drinking water, turning on a light -- so does everybody else. The only thing I can think to do about it is make fun of it.

We just had the hottest summer on record in Denver.

Well, get used to it. The only people who would deny that we are in a period of global warming like no other our species has ever experienced are the few remaining shills for the oil companies. People don't seem to understand what global warming is: As the temperature rises, there's evaporation; and water vapor is the biggest greenhouse gas, so it's an unending cycle. The more water vapor in the air, the less stable the weather patterns are. And so we have these 100-year floods every day, it seems.

You can see I've had a lot of fun with that notion in terms of, for instance, the California wineries that are all out of business because they're flooded out and they can only grow rice now.

That was one of the funny aspects of the book: Everybody's drinking microbrew sake.

I like sake actually, but I'm making fun of it anyway, because most people hate it. I did a gig in a bar the other night in Minneapolis. It was wonderful: Cover charge, I'm the opening act, they've got a band playing later. The people there had read the book and liked it, and they had a big bottle of sake. So we had a little sake on the rocks to toast the end of the world.

What do you hope to be doing when the world ends -- if it happens during your lifetime?

I'm not a prophet of doom. I'm just trying to sort out my own feelings on the subject, just as with "The Tortilla Curtain." How do I feel? I don't know. I need to write fictions in order to know how I feel about things.

I'll answer your question in a roundabout way. One of the books I read -- even before I started to think about this book -- five, six years ago, was Paul Kennedy's "Preparing for the Twenty-First Century." It was an overview of geopolitics in the coming century, the century we are now in. I remember one reviewer writing, "The overall view is so utterly depressing, most of us reviewers are happy we'll be dead by the time this comes to the fore."

I'm very deeply concerned. And when I'm very deeply concerned, I tend to try to set the concerns into a story with characters, set them in operation, put them against impossible tasks and have fun with the misery that they suffer as a result. Fans of my work will not be surprised to find that's the way "A Friend of the Earth" works.

In "The Tortilla Curtain," the totem animal was the coyote. If you could say there's one for this book, it would be the hyena.

Indeed, yes. As I've been announcing to audiences around the country, I can't really recall a great American or English novel that has "hyena" in the first sentence. Maybe there is one, but certainly "A Friend of the Earth" has "hyena" in the first sentence.

For those who haven't read the book, the hero, Ty Tierwater -- a baby boomer who is now 75 in the year 2025 after his third prison term, where he's been locked up for being an ecoterrorist -- is working as an animal man, managing the menagerie of a fading rock 'n' roll star, Maclovio Pulchris, who has a big estate in the Santa Ynez Valley, where he has a menagerie of some of the last of the major mammal species on Earth. But they're not the ones that you would think of as needing preservation -- not the cute gazelles and so on -- but the animals, as Maclovio says, "only a mother could love": the hyenas and the warthogs and peccaries and the pangolins and those sorts of animals. Obviously, my idea is that all creatures are valuable because we can't foresee what their place in the ecosystem is.

There was a little, minor debate going on the other day on a call-in talk show, where one of these right-wing nutballs called up and was saying, "I'd kill off this and that creature -- and the environmentalists, too!" And then we got onto the idea of mosquitoes: "Well, what about mosquitoes?" And this guy, of course, would press the button on mosquitoes worldwide. But an ecologist would say that mosquitoes are essential to the ecosystem.

By the way, I was in Alaska this summer, where you have a fur of [mosquitoes] over your entire body at all times and you actually breathe them. I love them so much that I feel, "Why should I deny them my own flesh and blood?" Actually, I'm only kidding! I'm very quick to slap them. When the ticks and the mosquitoes attack me -- no matter how stealthily -- I always feel them at the moment they start to bite. And then they suffer for it, by God!

Ty Tierwater seems to be a combination of Theodore Kaczynski and yourself.

[Chuckles] Yeah, I guess he has a lot of me in him. I wasn't thinking of Kaczynski exactly. More, I was thinking of some of the people from Earth First! who really pioneered [Edward] Abbey's idea of "monkey wrenching" in the '80s and '90s. But Kaczynski certainly was part of this ecological fringe, wasn't he? A seriously disturbed mental individual, but his ideas about going back to nature and destroying the technological machine have a lot of sympathy among many people, including me -- although, like Ty, I'm addicted to my machines too, and I'm just a criminal and enemy of the environment in many ways, even while I love it and want to save it. We're all, in the Western world, suffering from these contradictions. And that's another reason why I've written "A Friend of the Earth."

Like your character Sierra Tierwater says, "Everything's a compromise" -- isn't it?

Yeah, I guess so. I like to have electricity. I like to drive a car. I like to go to the grocery store and find food there, rather than have to go out into the wilderness and find it under rocks. I wonder when enough is enough, though. And I wonder when there [will be] enough of us big apes that we not only destroy all of the other creatures but destroy ourselves as well.

Have you ever had the urge to destroy any heavy machinery yourself?

Oh, you bet I have! I am outraged when I go into the national forest of the sequoias and see clear-cutting going on. I could, of course, plead the Fifth here, so as not to incriminate myself. But, in fact, I am an artist; I am not a rabble-rouser or a politician of any stripe. And I've never belonged to any kind of group.

So I haven't done acts of "ecotage" (aside from, maybe, stealing a clear-cutting sign and putting it up on my wall). And I have mixed feelings about people who do. While I subscribe to cutting back on raping the environment, I wonder if anybody can put themselves above the law for an ideal. While I subscribe to a degree to what the eco-saboteurs do, just as self-righteously someone could defend shooting abortion doctors, because God speaks to them and they don't have to obey the laws of the country or even the individual rights of a given woman, because God has made them vigilantes of a higher cause. So I think there are dangers in saying that you're above the law, no matter how reasonable your cause seems.

What did you think of Julia "Butterfly" Hill [who protested logging by occupying a redwood tree for more than two years]?

I was already writing this book when Julia went up her tree, and she was certainly an inspiration to me. Sierra Tierwater, Ty and Andrea's daughter, who goes up that very tree, was certainly inspired by Julia Hill. But there were also many other tree sitters and tree spikers and so on who inspired me.

But Julia was up the tree while I was writing the book, and, in fact, I finished the book before she came down. In my version, my tree sitter, Sierra, stays up in the tree for three years. I had no idea how long Julia would actually stay up there. She might have stayed up still to this day; she might have been there for 25 years. I hoped that she would be, actually. She's like the mad saint of the movement. I think it's wonderful.

Sierra, however, for the purposes of my fiction, came down a lot more precipitately and less gracefully than Julia "Butterfly" Hill, unfortunately.

In "A Friend of the Earth," you have the weather wreak havoc with one of the blights on the landscape of the Western United States: condos.

We've got to have an image for the great future, and for me it's the condo. Where are we going to put all these people? Well, we're going to put 'em in condos. And there's going to be nothing left of woods or nature or animals. The oceans are depleted, and this is a true fact: The oceans will be depleted utterly within a decade or so. Read [Carl Safina's] "Song for the Blue Ocean" and you will weep.

Condos are it. We'll be living in condos and drinking our locally brewed sake. The rain will be lashing at the windows. Mold will be growing on everything. We will be bereft of almost all animals. And we'll be on the Internet. In some ways, the Internet is a great boon, because we need virtual reality -- since there will be no more nature for us animals to live in.

I don't think the human race is going to go on much longer in its current manifestation, that is, this kind of society. I don't think everyone will be wiped out by the pandemic that will get us first; there will be a lot of dislocation and wars, too, because of the changing of the environment. But I think it's inevitable that when an animal species has overbred to the point we have, there are natural curbs on that animal species -- and they're coming, and I don't think there's anything we can do about it.

It sounds pretty cold. And it's also kind of cold to talk about all those useless people out there, those billions. Each one is an individual, and a great and beautiful creation.

By Gregory Daurer

Gregory Daurer is a freelance writer living in Denver. He also records his own songs under the nom de rock 'n' roll Gregory Ego.

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