Apr/May 2002 Book Reviews

A Friend of the Earth

T.C. Boyle
Bloomsbury, Allen & Unwin (Jan 2002) 275 pages
ISBN: 0 7475 5346 7

reviewed by Ann Skea

Tyrone O'Shaughnessy Tierwater (thankfully, known as 'Ty') is an unusual hero. He is, in his own terms, "young-old." This means that although he is in his seventies, all his working parts are still in order ("no Viagra Supra or penile implants needed here, thank you very much"), and his mind is still sharp and caustic. And it is this dry, caustic, worldly voice which holds your attention. Ty and his alter ego, T.C. Boyle, are master story-tellers.

Do you care about the environment? Do you recycle your rubbish, eschew plastic bags, subscribe to Greenpeace but sit comfortably at home watching them doing their bit to save the world on the TV news? Or are you an activist, a marcher, a tree-sitter? Whatever! You won't be in Ty's class unless you are fanatical about it.

Even if you are fanatical about it, Ty has news for you. The year is 2025 and everything the ecologists predicted would happen, has happened. But instead of there being less of everything, there seems to be more—more rain, more storms, more sun, more wind—but certainly fewer species of animals.

Ty, when we first meet him, is out feeding the hyena. He works for the wealthy, eccentric pop star Maclovio Pulchris, who has decided to save a few animals for zoo-cloning, but only the least cuddly ones: a hyena called Lily (Mac favours floral names), three lions (the male called, Dandelion, much to Ty's disgust), a Patagonian fox, giant anteaters—those sort of creatures. And Ty has just been contacted by his ex-wife, Andrea (Andrea Knowles Cotton Tierwater, to be exact). So starts a story which moves back and forth between 2025 and 1989, when Ty first joined Earth Forever! ("Never heard of it? Think radical enviro group, eighties or nineties. Tree spiking? Ecotage? Earth Forever! Ring a bell?"), met Andrea and changed his life.

Sounds romantic? Forget it! This is no romance. No sci-fi fantasy either. It is a funny and tragic roller-coaster ride through parts of Ty's life, including crazy activism, jail, sex, survival, and an abiding love for his dead daughter, Sierra. The story of Sierra's life and death is part of Ty's story, and his memories of her are realistic and moving. They make a beautiful balance to Ty's usual ironic tone as he views the world from his own intelligent but slightly crazy perspective.

But although this book is a pleasure to read, and Ty, Andrea, Sierra, Mac and the other characters are a mad, bad, attractive bunch of schemers and dreamers, there is a disconcertingly recognizable pattern to the course of events over the years. Eco groups abandon activism for politics, idealists compromise, and fanatics suffer (because they choose to do so) but achieve, as Ty eventually concedes: "Nothing....Absolutely nothing."

All of which makes me think that T.C. Boyle either still believes we have a chance to change things and has channelled his activism into very effective story-telling, or he believes we will end up like Ty and Andrea: retreating to a Thoreau-like existence in the devastated, but surviving, woods. Earth Forever!


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