Book Review: The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle

  The Mountain Man


The explorer John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition and widely considered the first Mountain Man in America, famously once escaped a murderous mob of Blackfoot Indians through a series of maneuvers which is known now as Colter's Run. This legendary gauntlet, outlined in T.C. Boyle's novel, The Harder They Come, is just one the heroic feats which guide one of its main character, Adam Stensen, through his cracked existence. Adam identifies so much with the mountain man, he christens himself with his  champion's surname; Colter: evocative not only of the explorer himself but of guns or horses or of the plow wheel it describes; an instrument used to cut through the earth. It seems the real John Colter lived his life in a far different environment, in a more brutal, less sensitive world; one which celebrated violence and aggression as much as it is misplaced today
Adam is the son of Sten Stensen, a seventy year old Vietnam vet and retired High School principal. The outset of Boyle's tale finds Sten and his wife, Carolee, vacationing down in Costa Rica where they find themselves on a "nature tour" traveling for too long over rough jungle terrain in a rickety bus full of their fellow slightly hungover tourists. When they finally arrive at their destination, the bemused travelers are set upon by a gang of three local thugs, one of whom brandishes a gun. In the confusion, Sten's military training prevails. Boyle tells us: "What he'd learned as a nineteen-year-old himself, a recruit, green as an apple, wasn't about self defense, it was about killing, and does anybody ever forget that?" Ineluctably, Sten is able to overcome the gun-toter, putting him in a choke hold and keeping him there, perhaps a bit too long, until the boy goes limp in his arms.

Explorer and Mountain Man John Colter

The third character Boyle chooses to closely follow is Sara, a disaffected anarchist in her late thirties who just happens to cross paths with our anti-hero, Adam. She allows him first into her car, then into her life or should we say he allows her into his life. Either way it is a believable pairing given the age gap (15 years). Sara is perpetually at odds with the authorities, refusing to acknowledge their control over her sovereign self, not buying in to the contract with civil service (the police or the DMV). She cites the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment which allows for the principle of freedom of contract, the basis of laissez faire economics. This philosophy, however altruistic in her own mind, quickly leaves her life in chaos. Sara's embrace of Adam's free range lifestyle, which to her seems to emulate some sort of extreme off-the-grid survivalism, is at first blush a perfect fit. But sadly it becomes all too apparent just how little reality is a part of Adam's psyche.

The Harder They Come, based on real events which transpired in Northern California a few years back, examines the interplay between these three deeply flawed characters, yet only by revealing their own decisive and responsible behavior; how one may affect or dissuade the other is really subtextual. Boyle lets the reader work that out. The tone of this work is somewhat somber and pessimistic. There is not much room for humor here as the author continues to ignore comically eccentric figures as he'd employed in the past (Mungo Park, John Harvey Kellogg); once again he eschews the biting satire which was so much a part of his early work (World's End, The Road to Wellville) in favor of more weighty material. In the case of The Harder They Come this is good news; for the veteran novelist and for his readers. It allows him to more thoroughly mine the quarry of human condition; to reveal the profound effect which society can impose on individuals, especially ones who happen to be mentally ill; Adam, though he fancies himself Colter, a modern Mountain Man, though his limbs are hard as stone from his incessant work in the deep woods beyond his home, and because of his condition, cannot impose himself in the real world without escaping from it. With this work, Boyle shows how guilt and shame can lead to rage or violence or perhaps most consequentially, inaction. 

~ 4.7 Stars