The Harder They Come by T. C. Boyle


In the motto of his novel, Boyle quotes D. H. Lawrence, according to whom the true American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.

In this novel, Boyle examines this hard, etc. American soul, but not on the level of some abstract national character, rather, on the level of individuals – as the three main characters of the novel are all embodiments of some primeval American-ness, in different ways.

Take for instance Sten Stenson, a man in his 70s: he’s a veteran of the Vietnam war, an accidental hero, and a Real Man – the kind of person who handles every frightening situation excellently; the kind of person who takes the wife out to dinner without ever stopping to ask where she’d like to go; the kind of person who emanates the fumes of tension and violence. Sten is, by the way, a model citizen, no-one could find a fault in his life, in his patriotism, or in anything else – but he seems constantly to be waiting for the moment when someone steps in his way, when someone gives him the slightest excuse to erupt violently. (There are more than one episodes in the story where Sten thinks the exact same thoughts – or when he puts these thoughts into practice.) And in my view, this is also a form of paranoia (I’ll deal with the other forms shortly): when you are constantly on the lookout to notice when anyone strays from the virtuous track so that you can immediately jump their throat – and, sure, quite rightly, since you are a model citizen after all.

The other main character is Sten’s son, Adam. Adam has an unclarified mental illness and occasional psychotic episodes, he’s a substance abuser, and as far from being a model citizen as you can get. Adam lives his life fully instinctively, only caring to satisfy his basic needs (food, sleep, sex, moving around), and he harbors his own special brands of paranoia and delusion. Adam’s mind is governed by two overriding themes: one is that in his mind, he’s the present-day embodiment of the relentless, freely roaming, superhuman Wild West legend, John Colter; and the other is that the threat of an alien/Chinese attack is ever-present, therefore utmost vigilance is required. Sure enough, Adam defends himself – first passively, by building a safe hideout, then another one, and later moving on to attacking first before the supposed alien attack ever comes.

And then here’s Adam’s lover, Sara: an anarchist, a rebel, constantly fighting against the authorities with or without reason while quoting those passages of the Constitution that support her claims and ideas. Sara, just like Adam, sees an enemy in everyone, and she lives her life somewhere above/on the sides of the law – but contrary to Adam, she still lives more or less in reality.

The story (which I don’t go into) is told through the perspectives of these three characters, and all three perspectives are convincingly rendered – surprisingly enough, all in the third person. Boyle’s descriptive power and his ability to present the reality through his characters’ eyes is so strong that sometimes I had to double-check whether the third-person narrative is really third-person after all, I was so directly experiencing the world through the characters’ minds. While reading the chapters alternating among three points of view, I don’t only believe but also feel Sten’s hardly controlled aggression, Sara’s frustrated, passive-aggressive, “don’t you ever mess with me” attitude, and the way Adam gets immersed deeper and deeper into the wild, free, heroic (mythical) American reality of 200 years ago, while losing touch with the present-day reality.

And by the way: besides the deeply convincing reality perception of the characters, the best and most surprising trait of this novel is how anachronistic these old American values seem today.

I was always taken slightly aback when someone in the story broke her cell phone, or when two friends watched some movie on Netflix – because in the normal course of the novel, I felt as if this was a story set in the 19th century. This only goes to show how old codes and norms the main characters follow – and they follow and uphold these norms so relentlessly that I often forgot that this is a story that takes place in our days.

And while I’d refrain from drawing general conclusions, by the time I reached the end of the novel, I got the impression that the supposedly ancient American traits (Liberty! Individualism! Everyone for himself! Self-reliance! Never giving up!), so dearly valued by the main characters, perhaps don’t necessarily lead to anything good in themselves, without being combined with more cooperative values – especially in an age where it’s not the Wild West out there anymore, and where you don’t actually have to run for your life naked, with a bunch of Indians hot on your trail. (This happened to the real John Colter, not to the characters of this novel. At least not literally.)

And though it doesn’t strictly belong here, the way Adam’s life turns out illustrates this point – like I said, the history of Adam’s illness and his psychotic episodes are not detailed, but I still got the impression that Sten abandoned his son to his fate rather nonchalantly, saying in so many words that “Adam is a free and self-standing person, and his illness is not my business.” And that’s only a touch of (heartbreaking) dramatic irony when Sten finally realizes: Adam’s illness is his, Sten’s business, too.