T.C. Boyle is not one of those authors who can be accused of writing the same novel again and again. Over the past 30 years, his subject matter has ranged from 18th-century Africa to the California of the future, from Mexican immigration to the sex life of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Even so, what has tended to unify his work is verbal extravagance, dark comedy and a taste for satire that sometimes borders on contempt. All of which makes San Miguel his most unexpected book yet. A historical novel of almost heroic restraint, its prose remains resolutely unflashy, and its tone is sympathetic to the point of genuine warmth.
On New Year’s Day 1888, Will and Maranatha Waters arrive on the island of San Miguel off the California coast with her teenage daughter Edith, and a couple of helpers, to become sheep ranchers and sole inhabitants. Will has sold the move to his wife as a cure for her consumption — but it’s soon clear (not least to her) that this is just a ruse for him to escape the modern world. Shocked by the living conditions and ferocious weather, Maranatha settles into a low-level depression, punctuated only by moments of more acute despair.
For a while, in fact, it looks as if Boyle may not have solved the traditional problem of how to depict boredom without himself being boring. (As Maranatha writes in her diary, there isn’t ‘anything to report but rain and tedium and more of the same’.) By basing the book ‘as accurately as possible’ on historical events, he also seems stuck with the shapelessness of real life. The Waters have occasional visitors and more regular arguments; but mainly they carry out the endless chores that island life demands.
Fortunately, this quiet attention to detail becomes increasingly vivid, sucking us into a world of everyday, unspectacular struggle. But, fortunately too, Maranatha’s is not the only story on offer. The second part shifts the focus to the more spirited Edith, and her often thrilling attempts to escape. Then in the third section, Boyle finally builds on the foundations he’s so carefully laid.
Herbie and Elise Lester also arrive on San Miguel on New Year’s Day, this time in 1930, and are also battered by the wind and rain. Unlike the Waters, they have the apparent advantage of liking each other — but this doesn’t prevent them learning the same tough lessons that there’s no escaping history, and that some places remain essentially untameable. So if everything ends in tears anyway, does it matter how nobly we try before they do?
Yet if San Miguel does end up as a touching, even gripping allegory of the doomed nature of human striving, then it’s always an unforced one. Instead, Boyle’s real efforts have gone into rendering as memorably as he can a fascinating, forgotten part of American history and geography (these days San Miguel is a National Park, accessible only by permit). And in that — while long-term fans might still miss the fizz and jokes of his earlier work — it’s hard to imagine him succeeding any more triumphantly.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 13 October 2012