Marantha Waters, the doctrinaire consumptive whose first-person account begins T.C. Boyle’s latest novel, ranks among that writer’s most memorable and miserable protagonists. The 38-year-old housewife, exiled to the sand-swept, uninhabited island of San Miguel off the coast of California, must grapple with isolation, debilitating spasms, a manipulative daughter, stinky livestock, and a brutish husband, the aptly named Will, who has dragged her here from San Francisco so he can live out his bucolic fantasy of becoming a shepherd.
Worst of all, Marantha
Blame the island. Boyle can’t get enough of it. It’s the second time in a row, following last year’s “When the Killing’s Done,’’ that Boyle has set one of his books in California’s Channel Islands. This time around, the island represents all sorts of things. It means something different to each member of the two families who move there a half-century apart, and Boyle never lets us forget it. For Marantha, it’s a frightening place to live out her last days. For the rest of the characters, through which Boyle lays out the history of San Miguel before it became a naval bombing range and, finally, a state park, the island is frontier, prison, refuge, and workplace.
The start of “San Miguel’’ allows Boyle to try his hand at a horror story. Sure, horrific things happen in his earlier works — hippie rape in “Drop City,’’ the homicidal rampage in “The Women’’ — but all were colored by Boyle’s patented archness, brief flashes of inhumanity within otherwise winking fictional worlds.
Marantha’s story is different. She’s dying from a terrible, humiliating illness, and Boyle can’t even bring himself to make fun of her, even though her worldview is just as risible, its conventions as paper-thin, as those of his other characters. Instead he immerses the reader in her anger and pain, instilling of all things empathy.
Luckily for the oversensitive, Marantha’s inevitable death happens early enough in the book that the reader is spared “Tin Drum’’-grade heaviness for the bulk of it. The next section picks up with Edith, her willful daughter, whose sole desire is to be free of the soul-crushing isolation of the devastatingly boring island. Most of the time, Edith stars in her own teenage girl opera, by turns fueled and derailed by the grim realities and consequences of her mother’s illness and death. She is attuned to au courant fashions and dramatic flourishes like “cruel irony”; she resolves to be an actress.
The final third of the novel is given over to Elise Lester, a relatively self-aware, empowered woman of the 1930s. Although she is yet another 38-year-old married to a damaged, obstinate veteran-cum-shepherd determined on becoming master of all he surveys, Elise is content. She maintains a healthy attitude when confronted with hubby Herbie’s frightening depressive episodes and reins herself in when he spends the night polishing his many guns, which he then mounts to their parlor wall.
Everyone knows what happens when a gun appears in a story. Even so, Boyle maintains jubilance throughout Elise’s narrative. Although the pitch rarely ascends to his usual whip-smart playfulness, the final third of the novel is undeniably the most pleasurable to read.
This incongruous joy manifests a strange truth about the book: The dramatic variance of its modes makes it less novel than triptych. Ultimately, these three stories never quite come together in a satisfactory way.
It’s tempting to blame the source material. In an author’s note, Boyle explains that he has based his narrative on the lives and personal accounts of actual inhabitants. However, as he reminds us, “San Miguel’’ is a work of fiction — one that doesn’t succeed quite as well as Boyle’s best novels have.
The most interesting thing about “San Miguel’’ is its difference from Boyle’s other work. It would be unfair to expect an author trying on an entirely new style to do so without a few bumps. But what “San Miguel” lacks in cohesion, it almost makes up for in glorious descriptions.