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T.C. Boyle: Radical Environmentalism in “A Friend of the Earth” Essay (Book Review)

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Updated: Jun 14th, 2022

Abstract

This paper discusses the discursive significance of the 2000 novel A Friend of the Earth by T.C. Boyle with respect to the themes and motifs contained in it while promoting the idea that the literary work in question reveals the main pitfalls of radical environmentalism, as we know it. In particular, it is argued that the reading of the concerned novel is likely to raise concerns about whether the most committed eco-radicals can be deemed mentally adequate. The paper also argues that eco-radicalism is not as much about protecting the natural environment as it is about enabling its affiliates to extort money from the presumably “environmentally unfriendly” companies and organisations.

Introduction

One of the most notable contemporary aspects of how people address life-challenges in the West has to do with the fact that, as time goes on, the idea of environmentalism seems to find more and more followers among them. Nevertheless, even though there are indeed many reasons to consider the cause of protecting the surrounding natural environment thoroughly legitimate, there is a strongly defined dark underside to how many of the self-proclaimed “eco-activists” go about promoting their agenda, in this respect. In particular, a fair share of these individuals appear to regard the environmentalist cause as such that represents the value of a “thing in itself”, quite unrelated to the essence of the objectively predetermined social dynamics in today’s West.

There is even more to it. Many of the environmentalist movement’s most radical adherents seriously believe that the terms “natural environment” and “civilization’ are mutually incompatible, and that the best strategy for preserving the former is trying to destroy (or at least damage) the modern society’s actual infrastructure – something that should help humanity to attain “purity”, in the sense of regressing back into a state of primeval savagery. It is understood, of course, that this makes them nothing short of terrorists, preoccupied with serving the environmentalist idée fixe while giving very little consideration to what may account for the actual consequences of their actions. Given the societal dangers of radical environmentalism, it is certainly justified making an inquiry into what predetermined the emergence of the social movement in question, as well as defining the specifics of the environmental activists’ psychological makeup. In this regard, the reading of the T.C. Boyle’s 2000 dystopian novel A Friend of the Earth will come in particularly handy because the concerned literary work provides a number of insights into the specifics of an environmentalist’s “brain wiring” and contains many implicit clues as to what should be deemed the overall significance of the environmentalist movement as a whole. In my paper, I will explore the validity of this suggestion at length.

Biographical sketch

Coraghessan Boyle (aka T.C. Boyle) was born in 1948 in Peekskill, New York. Ever since the beginning of his career as a writer in the late seventies, Boyle had written more than sixty short stories and eleven novels. The most prominent feature of this author’s writing style is that while featuring psychologically/logically plausible plots, most of his literary works are filled with intellectual wits and sarcasm. In 1988, Boyle was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award for his third novel World’s End. The main themes that Boyle explores in his works appear to have a strong existentialist quality to them. That is, the author tends to focus on discussing what causes many people in today’s America (and the West, in general) to choose in favour of leading socially alienated lifestyles. In 1978, Boyle moved to Santa-Barbara, where he has been living with his wife and three children ever since. As of today, Boyle is commonly referred to as one of the most prolific American writers (Elmhirst 45).

Analysis of A Friend of the Earth

Probably the most prominent quality about the novel’s plot is that, despite being comparatively straightforward, many readers (and critics alike) seem to have a hard time following its developments. One of the reasons for this is that as the plot unravels, the author’s narrative focus never ceases to jump back and forth from the present (set in the year 2015) to the late eighties and early nineties – the time when the novel’s main character (Tyrone Tierwater – a 75-year-old caretaker at Maclovio Pulchris’s [aging rock star] estate in California) was young and full of energy while striving to prove his worth to Andrea (Tierwater’s wife) as the enthusiastic member of the Earth Forever! “deep ecology” organisation. To complicate things even further, Boyle had made a point in using different relational voices throughout the novel’s entirety. As Mayer noted:

The chapters that focus on the situation in 2025-26 are presented by Ty as an autodiegetic narrator, while the chapters that present the events of the years 1989 to 1997 are focalized by him as well, yet related by a heterodiegetic narrator (221).

Nevertheless, it is still possible to come up with the brief description as to what A Friend of the Earth is all about. By the year 2015, the planet’s climate has changed to be utterly intolerable (the author mentions draughts and floods in California following each other with no time in between) – presumably the effect of the “global warming” that started back in the nineties and the Earth’s deforestation. Most animals have gone extinct and a few remaining animal species (taken care by rich philanthropists such as Pulchris) are about to suffer the same fate. While looking after his patron’s private zoo, Tierwater reflects on how the environmental situation has been deteriorating steadily since the late eighties and on his memories of having acted as an “environmental terrorist” when much younger – this makes up the contents of the novel’s “flashback” chapters and establishes the novel’s dystopian mood. In the present, however, it becomes ever harder for people to survive the environmental pollution. Eventually, Pulchris’s Rancho becomes destroyed due to yet another flood. After having gotten together with his estranged wife Andrea, Tierwater ends up leaving the place with both characters deciding to spend the rest of their lives residing in the remote cabin somewhere in Northern California that used to belong to Earth Forever! when they were younger – the plot’s concluding development that is meant to strengthen the post-apocalyptic sounding of Boyle’s novel.

Despite the fact that A Friend of the Earth has been critically acclaimed since the time of its initial publication, there is a good reason to consider it the weakest of all eight of the author’s novels – not the least due to the clearly formulaic responses to the externally induced stimuli, on the part of just about every character featured in it. In this regard, Mobilio came up with the perfectly valid observation:

His (Boyle’s) quirky characters are about as deep as the page on which we meet them… His impulse toward satiric exaggeration routinely overwhelms the bounds of verisimilitude. (In A Friend of the Earth) Like a motormouth enter­tainer who relentlessly seeks to dazzle, Boyle has wearied readers — and perhaps himself — for whom the tricks have grown stale and the dazzle has dimmed (24).

What contributes towards undermining the novel’s literary value even further is that the behaviour of most of the “environmentally conscientious” characters in it appears to be strongly irrational/erratic and even psychotic to an extent – something that has a negative effect on the novel’s readability. Ironically enough, however, this is also something that adds to the overall plausibility to the author’s description of what kind of rotten personality the advocates of “environmental liberation” happened to be endowed with.

The character of Tyrone Tierwater stands out perfectly illustrative in this respect. Probably the best indication that this is indeed the case is that, as one can infer from the novel, there is an eye-catching dichotomy between the Tierwater’s belief that by having assumed the stance of an eco-radical through the early phase of his life, he acted on behalf of humanity, on one hand, and the fact that he never ceased loathing the latter (without quite realising it), on the other. The character’s following statement proves the validity of such our suggestion:

Sure, there were individuals out there, human beings worthy of compassion, sacrifice, love, but that didn’t absolve them of collective guilt. There were too many people in the world, six billion already and more coming, endless people, people like locusts, and nothing would survive their onslaught. (Boyle 240)

As the readers go through the novel, it becomes ever clearer to them that ever since his young years, Tierwater has been affected by what today’s psychologists refer to as the “crisis of self-identity” – a mental condition that causes a person to experience much anxiety as a result of having a hard time trying to define who he/she really is (Dunkel et al. 253). Hence, the significance of the following quotation from A Friend of the Earth, in which he mentions his ethnic background of an inbred: “I’m seventy-five years old, my name is Tyrone O’Shaughnessy Tierwater, and I’m half an Irish Catholic and half a Jew” (Boyle 10). Moreover, there can also be very little doubt that the character’s affiliation with “deep ecology” has been essentially superficial. To prove the soundness of this suggestion we can refer to the scene in the novel when, after having been released from jail (as an active saboteur of the logging industry in Oregon) for the first time, Tierwater could not find anything better to do, but to drive around in a brand new Jeep like a maniac: “What’s the first thing you do when you get out of prison? Scoot your wife over and get behind the wheel of the car.

What car? Any car. In my case, it was the new Jeep Laredo Andrea had bought me” (Boyle 275). Even though the quoted excerpt is only three-line long, it provides us with three important insights into the workings of the main character’s psyche, revealing him as someone who does not quite fit the classical definition of a “tree-hugger” (with the possible exemption of the last one). First, Tierwater clearly never gave much thought to the paramount role that cars play polluting the Earth’s atmosphere – contrary to his self-assumed stance as an environmentalist. Second, the novel’s main character was a consumerist-minded individual, innately driven to acquire material things as his life’s de facto priority. Third, “Ty” has definitely been no stranger to leading the lifestyle of a gigolo who takes advantage of gullible/hysterical women, such as Andrea.

Boyle’s novel, however, contains a key to understanding the earlier outlined specifics of this character’s existential stance, as having been nothing but a “by-product” of the essentially degenerative process of American society growing increasingly effeminate, which in turn results in causing more and more “urban progressives” like Tyrone (and the author himself) to feel alienated from the so-called “masculine” values that prescribe men to act in a socially responsible manner (Nagel 110). As Mayer pointed out: “Many of Ty’s recollections of his time as a member of Earth Forever! reveal that his identity as an environmentalist was formed in confrontation with a concept of masculinity” (228). There are indeed many subtle references to this fact in the novel. For example, Tyrone was never able to bring himself to tolerate Theo Van Spark (yet another prominent member of the Earth Forever! group) because of this person’s strongly defined masculine appearance and because, unlike what it was the case with the novel’s main character, Van Spark has been capable of relying on his sense of rationale while addressing different challenges.

There is, however, even more disturbing quality to Tyron’s personality, as it is being described in the novel – this individual appears to have been suffering from a compulsive neurosis of some sort, which in turn affected the way in which he used to perceive the surrounding social/natural environment and his place in it. The validity of this statement can be substantiated concerning the character’s mental fixation on filth and loathsome bodily odours, which he exhibits throughout the novel. In this regard, it will be thoroughly appropriate to cite from Mayer’s article once again: “Ty Tierwater’s frequent exposure to experiences of disgust and loathing… show that Boyle created a protagonist whose subjectivity is strongly marked by encounters with the abject” (223). It is hardly possible to argue with her – as the novel’s plot unravels, Tyron never skips a chance to reflect on the most disgusting things possible, as if he was taking a secret delight in doing it. Here is how he describes loathsome odours inside a guesthouse at Rancho Seco:

The place smells of mould – what else? – And rats…They have an underlying smell, a furtive smell, old sweat socks balled up on the floor of the high‑school locker room, drains that need cleaning, meat sauce dried onto the plate and then reliquefied with a spray of water (Boyle 15).

And one does not have to be a psychiatrist to understand that a person’s obsession with filth/decay has a strong pathological subtlety to it (Seidman 21). Therefore, it does not come as a particular surprise that Boyle describes the novel’s main character as someone innately tempted to indulge in the anti-social (arsonist) behaviour while using the pretext of “protecting the environment” to justify it in his own eyes. In other words, Tyron’s preoccupation with the environmentalist matters should be seen sublimative of the concerned person’s mental abnormality – pure and simple. The novel’s episode in which Tyron and Andrea decide to prove their commitment to the idea of “deep ecology” by moving into the woods to live there completely naked illustrates once again the full soundness of such our suggestion (Långström 318).

It needs to be mentioned that, psychologically speaking, the rest of the Earth Forever! members (particularly Andrea, Tyron’s daughter Sierra and Andrea’s friend April) closely matched the novel’s protagonist, in the sense of being just as impulsively irrational and intolerant to the opinions of others. For example, as it appears from the novel, Andrea used to enjoy bossing people around (within the Earth Forever! group) as something that represented a value of its own while justifying such her behaviour with the feminist claim that, as compared to what it is the case with men, women are much “closer to earth” and consequently – much wiser: “She’s (Andrea) in charge here tonight, and she’s going to rein them all (the affiliates of Earth Forever!)… she’s so supercilious, so self-satisfied, cocky, bossy” (Boyle 36).

Nevertheless, this particular character still deserves to be given a credit for at least having tried to use some cause-effect logic, within the context of how she used to go about promoting environmental awareness among people. The same, however, does not apply to her daughter Sierra, who died while taking part in one of the environmentalist “direct actions”, undertaken by Earth Forever! in the nineties, and was sub-sequentially proclaimed “martyr of the trees” by the group’s other members. After all, just about every of this character’s hysterical claims betray her of having been unable to understand the dialectical essence of the relationship between causes and effects in this world. The person’s following statement exemplifies the argumentative rationale behind this suggestion:

The whole fucking biosphere is going to collapse like a balloon with a pin stuck in it, and then where’re you going to be with your let’s dress up – and – play soldier suits? Huh? Where are you going to go? What are you going to eat? (Boyle 78).

Evidently enough, it never occurred to Sierra that memorising the term “biosphere” is not the same as understanding what does it stand for, as well as what account for its functional principles. Had it been otherwise, she would know that the humanity’s industrial activities have very little to do with the ongoing deterioration of the surrounding natural environment. After all, it does not represent much of a secret that the eruption of a single volcano emits as much carbon monoxide into the atmosphere (the presumed cause of the “global warming”) as do all of the coal-operated power plants on this planet for the duration of hundreds and hundreds of years (Fortune 90).

One may wonder how come today’s eco-radicals (such as Tyron, Andrea and Sierra), specialised in screaming “bloody murder” about the dangers of the man-induced environmental pollution, never came to terms with this simple truth? A Friend of the Earth provides an answer to this question, as well. As the author noted:

Teo and Andrea didn’t have jobs. Neither, any longer, did Tierwater. Teo and Andrea were supported by E. E! Contributions, the money they made stumping in places like Croton, and, ultimately, by Tierwater. And Tierwater was supported by his dead father. This is called the food chain (Boyle 212).

Clearly enough, the “bleeding heart” environmental radicals, featured in the novel, never had to concern themselves with the question “What are you going to eat?”. They were able to make a good living by mean of extorting money from the “environmentally unfriendly” companies and organisations in a broad daylight. There is nothing secretive about how this is being done. Organisations like Earth Forever! declare that they will boycott a particular “corporate polluter”, with their members being given “go ahead” to indulge in the acts of sabotage (“direct actions”) against the company/organisation chosen to be victimised. In exchange to be willing to lift this boycott, eco-terrorists demand to be paid a substantial amount of money – pure and simple (Carson et al. 302). This is a little dirty secret of the so-called “environmental activism”.

Most individuals affiliated with it are nothing but social parasites who seriously believe that the whole world owes them – all due to the presumed “intellectual progressiveness”, on their part. Such their “progressiveness”, however, is nothing but a myth. Even though Boyle clearly did not intend for this to be the case, but the reading of his eighth novel will inevitably prompt one to come up with such a conclusion. We can say that A Friend of the Earth is symptomatic of what is wrong with the contemporary environmentalist movement, as we know it – the fact that, despite having mastered the pretentiously sophisticate (but essentially meaningless) politically correct rhetoric, eco-activists do not have even a slightest clue, as to what needs to be done to effectively address the issue of environmental pollution. Partially, this explains why after having read Boyle’s novel, one is likely to experience difficulty telling what this literary piece is all about.

As one can infer from what has been said earlier, the activities of eco-radicals could not possibly benefit the natural environment by definition. This simply could not be otherwise. By encouraging ordinary citizens to hug trees, as an ultimate mean of preventing the latter from being cut down, environmental wachos deliberately divert people’s attention from the fact that the very paradigm of Capitalism establishes the objective preconditions for the deterioration of the environmental situation in the West to proceed unopposed. What this means is that eco-radicalism is nothing but yet another fetish for the decadent Westerners to play with while indulging in the bellyful idling.

Its solemn purpose is to help these people feeling better about themselves and provide them with the seemingly legitimate justification to resort to extortion, as the most effortless instrument of taking care of their consumerist anxieties. It is understood, of course, that Boyle would be most likely to disagree with how we perceive the discursive significance of A Friend of the Earth. After all, a mere glance at his photo will leave very little doubt as to the author’s self-positioning as an effeminate white yuppie, who never held anything heavier than a pen in his hands and who probably would not be able to survive without being provided with the opportunity to polish his nails a few times a day. Individuals like him have been traditionally known for their tendency to fetishize the matters of environmental concern, without being able to contribute even slightly towards the cause of protecting the natural environment in any concrete (not merely declarative) manner. Nevertheless, as it was shown earlier, there is indeed a good reason for us to reflect on A Friend of the Earth in the way we did.

Conclusion

I believe that the earlier deployed line of argumentation, in defence of the idea that radical environmentalism poses clear and present danger to the society’s well-being, is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. Apparently, there is indeed a good reason to think of it as being innately degenerative and reflective of the ongoing “decline of the West”, in the allegorical sense of this word. The paper’s main argumentative claims (supported by the references to the novel itself and the thematically relevant secondary sources) can be summarized as follows:

  • One’s strong commitment to the cause of eco-radicalism is suggestive that the concerned person experiences mental problems, especially if this prompts him or her to set things on fire.
  • Even though eco-radicals tend to position themselves as the idealistically minded individuals, solely concerned with the natural environment’s preservation, this does not prevent them from loving money with a passion, just like everybody else.
  • The emergence and sub-sequential popularisation of eco-radicalism in the West in its present form should be seen as yet another indication that, as time goes on, more and more Westerners grow increasingly degenerative/decadent.

Therefore, it will only be logical to suggest that a person’s self-positioning as an eco-radical should be seen as a good enough reason for him or her to be required to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. In the backyard of just about every psychiatric clinic, there should be plenty of trees for the “environmentalists” to hug, without endangering the society.

Works Cited

Boyle, T.C. A Friend of the Earth. New York, Viking, 2000.

Carson, Jennifer, et al. “Terrorist and Non-Terrorist Criminal Attacks by Radical Environmental and Animal Rights Groups in the United States, 1970–2007.” Terrorism and Political Violence, vol. 24, no. 2, 2012, pp. 295-319.

Dunkel, Curtis, et al. “The Continued Assessment of Self-Continuity and Identity.” The Journal of Genetic Psychology, vol. 171, no. 3, 2010, pp. 251-261.

Elmhirst, Sophie. “T. Coraghessan Boyle.” New Statesman, vol. 140, no. 5051, 2011, p. 45.

Fortune, Michael. “Global Warming: Myth or Reality?” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, vol. 88, no. 1, 2007, pp. 89-92.

Långström, Niklas. “The DSM Diagnostic Criteria for Exhibitionism, Voyeurism, and Frotteurism.” Archives of Sexual Behavior, vol. 39, no. 2, 2010, pp. 317-324.

Mayer, Sylvia. “American Environmentalism and Encounters with the Abject: T. Coraghessan Boyle’s A Friend of the Earth.” Genus: Gender in Modern Culture, vol. 9, no. 5, 2007, pp. 221-234.

Mobilio, Albert. “Have You Hugged Your Tree Today?” New York Times Book Review, 8 Oct. 2000, pp. 24.

Nagel, Elizabeth. “Inclusive Masculinity: The Changing Nature of Masculinities.” Journal of Men’s Studies, vol. 18, no. 1, 2010, pp. 109-110.

Seidman, Steven. “Defilement and Disgust: Theorizing the Other.” American Journal of Cultural Sociology, vol. 1, no. 1, 2013, pp. 3-25.

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