When the Killing's Done, the war is definitely intense, and the casualty counts are high, but the war waged is between two groups most would consider ideologically similar: environmentalists and animal rights activists. And in this novel of left-on-left violence, one side emerges as the unequivocal winner.
The problem, though, is that there's never any question which side will win. There's no real moral conflict for the reader. Boyle makes his own agenda clear from the outset by making it painfully obvious who you're to side with. And let's just say it's not the animal rights side that includes a bunch of fanatical, cartoonish weirdos. That's especially true when the environmentalist side is represented by a mild-mannered, reasonable, sympathetic Asian-American biologist. Who would you root for?
The battleground for the novel is the Channel Islands, a small group of islandds off the California coast near Santa Barbara. Alma Takesue is a young biologist who works for the U.S. National Parks Service, and is working hard to rid the islands of man-brought invasive (and nasty) species, such as rats and feral pigs, in order to return the ecosystem to its natural state. This involves a lot of killing, anathema to Dave LaJoy, a 42-year-old dreadlocked electronics magnate, who has founded and funds an organization called For the Protection of Animals. In a novel that's supposed to draw you in with moral ambiguity, this much is very clear: Dave is an asshole — he's the kind of guy who is needlessly mean to strangers (at a restaurant, he sends three bottles of wine back before leaving in a huff), who is convinced the whole world is against him, and who is always yelling at his folk singer girlfriend Anise.
Pockmarking Dave and Alma's increasingly intense clashes is flashback to Alma's family history and Anise's mother's time on the island as a sheepherder. Intended to illustrate the characters' historical connections to the island, they feel superfluous, like dropped-in short stories (of course, Boyle is an accomplished short story writer, as well), and thus add little to the story.
Furthermore, very much in contrast to a novel that is otherwise intricately and precisely written (well, for the most part — there are a few over-written descriptions and a tortured metaphor here and there*), Dave's dialogue is atrocious. It just doesn't fit. He says things like "Don't f@ck with me. Not here. Not now," and "You're no better than executioners. Nazis, that's what you are. Kill everything, that's your solution. Kill, kill, kill." It's so bad, I began to wonder if Boyle is doing it on purpose, as another tactic to be sure readers are not on Dave's side. What it does accomplish, though, is not only to turn Dave further into a caricature of an animal rights activist, but also to me further away from enjoying this book.
Amidst the detritus of Bad Dave and his bad dialogue, there really is an interesting moral dilemma here. Outside the context of this novel, the question of whether it's okay to kill animals for the sake of restoring a natural ecosystem is an incredibly complex and interesting one to ponder. Not so to Boyle, apparently. But why set up such a great conflict only to make the winner a foregone conclusion? This novel could've been great — it had potential to really make readers think hard to determine which side they are on. But that idea is immediately smothered and destroyed, like so many native species without capability to defend themselves.
*Not because it's gross, but because it feels like purposefully bad fiction, this particular one made me close the book, take a deep breath, and then continue: "...the boy steps forward on his own in initiative and grinds his heel into the animal's head till the gray and pink strands of the neural matter sluice free, like spaghetti."