The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle
Boyle’s generation-spanning tale explores America’s violent instinctsBooks Reviews
Any nightly news program will validate the timeliness of T. Coraghessan Boyle’s latest read, The Harder They Come. The novel—his 15th since his 1982 debut, Water Music—explores the inherent American nature of violence through three short-fuse leads: Sten Stenson, a retired high school principal and former vet; Adam Stenson, Sten’s 25-year-old son whose struggles with mental health cloud The Harder They Come’s narration; and Sara Jennings, a middle-aged, establishment-hating farrier who finds herself romantically linked to the youngest Stenson. As the book’s jacket confirms, the amped-up sum of this trio leads to the book’s grim finale—a hard fall indeed, brimming with automatic weapon fire, sex and a vivid interpretation of Mountain Man John Colter’s story. Like the best of his work, Boyle’s no-frills narration makes for a fascinating journey up to the final page.
Boyle’s journey into the Stensons’ American psyche starts in Puerto Limon, Costa Rica, where Sten and his wife, Carolee, are vacationing on a cruise ship. They’re not a far throw from Jonathan Franzen’s Lambert family in The Corrections—both are middle class, nit-picky retirees playing tug-of-war with their final years—but what sets Boyle’s Sten aside is his slow-burning fury, maintained and perfected by his decades of disciplinary roles. He was forged by years in the U.S. military—where he may or may not have shot a man in combat—then solidified as a community leader in a Northern California high school. But as pure-blood American as Sten is, we first meet him out of his element: on a cruise to Costa Rica, a lavish and unnecessary expense by Sten’s count. Yet it’s this reluctant vacationer who saves his tourist group during a nature walk, when they’re approached by knife- and gun-wielding robbers. Sten’s military instinct kicks into gear. Eighteen pages in, there’s blood on his hands. Sten kills a man.
Not much later, down-on-her-luck Sara meets Adam. Boyle is quick to draw the comparison—references to Johnny Cash and Hank Williams songs aplenty—but Sara’s life has turned to a particularly sad country song. After being pulled over, she refuses to comply with a police officer. She’s physically reprimanded, and her dog bites the cop. Within a few hours, shitkicker boot-wearing Sara has lost her car, her money, her dog. Then she spies a slim, dirty—still, pretty good looking—man. Adam.
They bond immediately over a greater enemy—the U.S. government. The two cohabitate in a house inherited from Adam’s dead grandmother, then back at Sara’s, and it’s an interesting relationship to draw. Adam thinks he’s defined from his independence from his parents. He’s shunned help from Sten and Carolee in favor of living an “independent life” in the woods, said in quotes because he still feeds off of those connected to the proper world—whether that’s in the form of medical treatment, food or shelter when his own wilderness expeditions don’t go as planned. But Boyle’s tale culminates in the form of a state-wide manhunt for Adam when, following a schizophrenic episode, the manboy shoots and kills two men.
It’s not violent actions that define The Harder They Come. Sure, they move the book forward and set up logical plot points. But the act of killing is a mere afterthought in Boyle’s America, which obsesses over the minutia in the days, hours and seconds that lead up to nightly news-worthy acts. Maybe Sten’s a killer in the novel’s first act. But he’s also a Cruise Ship Hero, an Aide to Costa Rica’s police, a guy who’s wonders what celebrity will play him—Travolta, maybe?—in his own Captain Phillips-style movie. Not to mention he’s a sham and failure to his own son. It’s only weeks later, when he’s Googling himself in the news and his victim’s proper name shows up, that he has an emotional response to the act of killing. And that’s something The Harder They Come does well—explaining the root of Sten, and later Adam’s, “Other” mentality. Filing humans away under labels—be it crooks, or later Aliens and Indians— appears to be Boyle’s root of unspeakable acts.
And while Boyle’s cast can come off as cut-and-dried symbols, they feel real by the book’s completion. Sten’s impatience with the world around him is offset by a deep-rooted boredom in his own retired life—one that he’s not willing to mitigate if it means breaking into his own savings account. His own fractured relationship with his son, built on silence and conflict avoidance, is a sensitive subject—and also a funny one, because of how alike they are. Sara’s anti-authoritarian, anti-government, anti—well, everything that isn’t her dog, Kutya—is offset by a later-in-life loneliness that’s only scratched by the aforementioned dog and Adam. Then Adam, whose militaristic rambles define the second half of the novel, is the toughest to understand. Adam—who shuns an activity most finger-pointers blame for teen violence: videogames—looks to survivalists in U.S. history for entertainment.
Boyle’s penned a fast-paced, riveting read that mirrors many action movie scenarios—the lone hero taking on legions of less clever, less trained, less worthy adversaries. Maybe you’ll find yourself caught up in the pace of it all—but most importantly, like in real life, there are no victory bells when The Harder They Come’s final bullets are spent.
Tyler Kane is Paste’s Assistant Books & Comics editor. He lives in Ypsilanti, Michigan, with his AP stylebook. Follow him on Twitter.