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<DIV>In the tradition of <b>The Tortilla Curtain</b>, T.C. Boyle blends idealism and satire in a story that addresses the universal questions of human love and the survival of the species. In the year 2025 global warming is a reality, the biosphere has collapsed, and 75-year-old environmentalist Ty Tierwater is eking out a living as care-taker of a pop star's private zoo when his second ex-wife re-enters his life.<br><br> Both gritty and surreal, <b>A Friend of the Earth</b> represents a high-water mark in Boyle's career-his deep streak of social concern is effortlessly blended here with genuine compassion for his characters and the spirit of sheer exhilarating playfulness readers have come to expect from his work.</div>
If, as we are frequently cautioned, ecological collapse is imminent, the future might someday resemble T.C. Boyle's vision of Southern California, circa 2025: strafing wind, extortionate heat, vast species extinction, and a ramshackle, dispirited populace. A more bleak backdrop--part <I>Blade Runner</I>, part <I>Silent Spring</I>--for his eighth novel is difficult to imagine. But the ever-mischievous, ever-inventive Boyle is all too willing to disoblige; and so, in extended homage to early Vonnegut, his Sierra Club nightmare is rendered, well, <I>comically</I>. Toss in streaks of unabashed sentimentality, a scattershot satire, and several signature narrative ambushes, and <I>A Friend of the Earth</I> only further embellishes the already prodigious Boyle reputation.<p> During the 1980s and '90s, Ty Tierwater had exchanged a sedately acquisitive existence--"the slow-rolling glacier of my old life, my criminal life, the life I led before I became a friend of the earth"--for a fairly ambivalent position on the front lines of an ecoterrorist posse called Earth Forever! The only complication is his dual penchant for empathy and ineptitude, exacerbated by a frustration that swells with accumulating incitements. After his daughter is taken from him, and his second wife, Andrea, becomes more committed to the cause than to their marriage, Ty finds solace in blind destruction. He serves his almost predictable terms in jail; he endures the eventual death--and martyrdom--of his activist daughter, Sierra. At 75, and a quarter of the way into the dismal and decayed 21st century, he unaccountably finds himself tending an eccentric rock star's private mini-zoo of ragged animals and wryly lamenting the collapse of his race. And then Andrea resurfaces--along with his long-fallow faith in love.<p> Old Testament digression stalks Ty throughout <I>A Friend of the Earth</I>, from a publicity-stunt-cum-Edenic-retreat during his heady Earth Forever! days to a chaotic menagerie roundup amidst flooding rainfall. Boyle's future, however, is less apocalyptic than resigned, more drearily pragmatic than angst-ridden. It's a world Ty ultimately finds untenable: a constricted diversity, ecological or ideological, proves stultifying, a fact he only dimly recognized while awash in his earlier radicalism. "To be a friend of the earth," he avers in retrospect, "you have to be an enemy of the people." Boyle's spirited tale sustains the brashness of Ty's convictions. <I>--Ben Guterson</I>