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T.C. Boyle’s The Harder They Come and Violent America

Walter G. Moss: Although others have written of Boyle’s many skills as a writer of fiction—including his wit and descriptive and narrative powers, which are plentiful in this novel—here I will focus on its insights into U.S. violence.

In an LA Progressive essay that appeared last spring, I quoted from T. C. Boyle’s A Friend of the Earth (2000). It is set in California—Boyle has been on the faculty of USC since 1978—and depicts his state in 2025-2026 as an ecological nightmare due to extreme climate change. Now in his latest novel (his fifteenth), he treats another important contemporary topic—U.S. deranged killing and gun violence. Although others have written of Boyle’s many skills as a writer of fiction—including his wit and descriptive and narrative powers, which are plentiful in this novel—here I will focus on its insights into U.S. violence.

The Harder They Come

The Harder They Come deals primarily with the Stensen family (retired-school-principal Sten, his wife Carolee, and their unbalanced, mid-twenties son Adam) and with the “once-divorced forty-year-old” farrier Sara Jennings, with whom Adam becomes involved, sexually and otherwise.

Although Adam is much more unbalanced than Sara, her political views are also extreme.

Was she wearing her seatbelt? No, she wasn’t, and she was never going to wear it either. Seatbelt laws were just another contrivance of the U.S. Illegitimate Government of America the Corporate that had given up the gold standard back in 1933 and pledged its citizens as collateral so it could borrow and keep on borrowing. But she wasn’t a citizen of the U.S.I.G.A., she was a sovereign citizen, a U.S. national, born and raised, and she didn’t now and never would again acknowledge anybody’s illegitimate authority over her. So no, she wasn’t wearing her seatbelt. And she didn’t have legal plates, or the sort of plates the republic of California deemed legal, that is (the sticker that had come with the ones on the car was long since expired because she wasn’t about to play that game), and if she was traveling on the public roads in her own personal property, it was her business and nobody else’s. (63)

On one occasion she tries to tell Adam about “how the pigs had shot dead one of the gurus,” Jerry Kane, Jr., of the sovereign-citizen movement that “opened her eyes and revolutionized her life,” gunned him down in a Walmart parking lot in Arkansas and his sixteen-year-old son along with him. (191) For this hero of hers, Boyle borrows a real-life individual killed in a shootout in 2010. Sara also mentions the terrorist Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber who in 1995 killed 168 people in a federal government building. About him she thinks, “Now there was a soldier, there was somebody who wasn’t going to take it anymore. Though maybe that was a bit extreme. She wasn’t violent herself and didn’t really believe in it and whenever his name came up she had to admit that maybe he had gone too far— she couldn’t see taking lives, though you could hardly call them innocent. Live and let live, right? Unless they keep on kidnapping you, keep on regulating you, keep on sticking their hands deeper and deeper into your pockets until you’ve got no pockets left.” (256)

The Harder They Come

Although as anti-government as Sara, Adam’s views are more complex and affected by drugs and who knows what sort of other demons that bedevil him. Late in the novel Boyle has Sara “grieving over Adam, over how she’d fallen so hard for him when clearly he was trouble— worse than trouble, a psychopath, a murderer, a cannon so loose he’d rolled right off the deck.” (337)

In high school he and his friend Cody “were always stoned.” (360) Once during those “stoned” years he drove a car through a fence in a playground, scattering kids like rabbits. He was sent to a “facility,” evaluated, given “meds, more meds, and released . . . to the custody of his parents and he went back to school and got bored and hung out with Cody and got high and higher and finally moved in with his grandmother and turned eighteen and began to get serious about the outdoors because he saw his destiny then as the first true mountain man of modern times.” (283-284)

He took as his hero another real-life individual, John Colter, who participated in the Lewis and Clark Expedition and “earned enduring fame as one of the first American mountain men.” Adam even took to calling himself ‘Colter.” At one point Adam thinks, “There was no independence in the world, just dependence, and the animals were dying and the sky was like a sore and everything had a price tag on it. It wasn’t like that when the mountain men came out of the east and went up into the Plains and the Rocky Mountains when the country stopped at the Mississippi and the hostiles ruled all the territory beyond.” (100) In his own day, Adam often identifies individuals as “hostiles,” aliens, or Chinese. For example, “the Chinese taking over because they were the new hostiles and if you had ten million Colters you couldn’t beat them back.” (103)

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Adam prides himself on his toughness and scorns all the softies around him. About the police he thinks, “Because for all their swagger and body armor and big-time SWAT-team training they were just bloated Dorito-sucking Boy Scouts who sat around on their couches all day long with a remote in their hand while he double-timed it up the ravines and climbed sheer cliffs with only his boots and his fingernails just to show himself he could do it. And he could. And he did.” (355)

As Adam becomes increasingly unstable and a fugitive for shootings, Boyle depicts well the anxiety and guilt feelings of his parents, Sten and Carolee. One of the great values of good literature is that it helps us to empathize with others. And any of us who are parents of adult children can appreciate how such children, even if they are not criminals, can act in ways we disapprove of and lead us to ask why, and whether we failed in certain ways in bringing them up.

Empathy can be understood in different ways and one description is the following: “[It] is a tool for understanding the way another person thinks, feels or perceives. It enables us to comprehend another’s mindset, driving emotions or outlook, without requiring us to share the other’s thoughts, feelings and perceptions, or, indeed, approve of them. An empathic approach involves the assimilation of diverse information, including social, historical and psychological details, and a conscious effort to see the world through that person’s eyes.”

In his A Sense of the Enemy (2014), historian Zachary Shore writes of the need for “strategic empathy,” and defines it as “the skill of stepping out of our own heads and into the minds of others. It is what allows us to pinpoint what truly drives and constrains the other side. Unlike stereotypes, which lump people into simplistic categories, strategic empathy distinguishes what is unique about individuals and their situation.” But once we use empathy to put ourselves in others’ minds, we can then use this knowledge to do either good or evil towards them.

I would argue that we need such empathy to better understand all the violence, including the mass U. S. shootings, which keep troubling our nation. We need it to understand those we are opposed to, those who perpetrate such violence. Although I have written of U.S violence previously, Boyle’s newest novel helps us to better understand it. Some of it is influenced by the same anti-government hatred that characterizes Sara and Adam, and helped motivate Kane and McVeigh—see, for example, McVeigh’s explanation for why he bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

An April 2015 article in The Christian Science Monitor states that “a 2014 survey of law enforcement officers revealed that the sovereign citizen movement [of which Boyle’s Sara is a part] was their highest extremist‐related concern.” It also cites an Anti-Defamation League (ADL) report that declares: “Right‐wing extremism was a major threat at the time of the Oklahoma City bombing, ‘targeting minorities, the government, and anybody who did not subscribe to their fringe ideologies. . . . In 2015, the situation is the same. In both eras, right‐wing extremists have been responsible for the majority of extremist‐related violence in the United States.’”

When we ask ourselves “Why all the U.S. killing?” anti-government sentiments are certainly one answer. Those same sentiments are widespread among many Tea Party activists and Republicans who do not condone violent anti-government actions. But does their anti-government rhetoric help create a climate that nurtures such actions, especially among those who are mentally unbalanced like Boyle’s Adam?

Whether it is right-wing terrorists or Muslim extremists like the couple who killed 14 people recently in San Bernardino, they are motivated by false ideas, by ideologies. In a previous article I quoted Pope Francis’s words: “Ideology does not beckon [people]. In ideologies there is not Jesus: in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. And ideologies are rigid, always. . . . And when a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith. . . . But it is a serious illness, this of ideological Christians. . . . His attitude is: be rigid, moralistic, ethical, but without kindness.” He urged Christians “to remain humble, and so not to become closed.”

These are wise words, but ones unfortunately that neither Boyle’s Adam nor Sara live by. Nor do enough of the rest of us, whether Christian, Muslim, or other. Too many of us, as Francis warned, put ideologies before love, kindness, and humility. It is to Boyle’s credit in The Harder They Come that he enables us to experience the tragic consequences of such prioritizing and what sometimes motivates it.

walter moss

Walter G. Moss