The Harder They Come by T. C. Boyle
A cruise to Central America and a stop in Costa Rica sound like a vacation dream for a middle class retired couple. After all, Costa Rica is supposed to be a pretty safe place and all of the side trips have been recommended by the cruise liner and its obsequious crew members. What could go wrong?
A lot, as it turns out. While Sten and his wife are on an eco-tour, hoping to find rare birds and other Costa Rican wildlife, Sten, a Vietnam-era ex-Marine (now 70 years old) has been getting more and more outraged at the bus driver and the second-class tour accommodations as the group nears its destination. On arrival, their tour group is attacked by three armed men who demand all of their valuables. At this point, Sten is feeling fully victimized and not going to take it. He remembers his Marine training—it becomes automatic—and he fights back.
When Sten is finally back home, we realize that he has many other big issues to contend with. His son, Adam, is schizophrenic and furious that he is being removed from his grandmother’s cabin in the woods, now that the grandmother has died. Self-medicating on various drugs including opium—which can be grown in the forests outside Mendocino—Adam is delusional and thinks of himself as the reincarnation of John Coulter, consummate frontiersman. Part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Coulter later outran Blackfoot Indians for 300 miles to survive a death sentence.
Sten, a former high school principal, volunteers in a citizens’ group that patrols the forests around Mendocino for evidence of Mexican drug cartels, which grow marijuana in those secluded woods. In doing so, they wreck havoc on the environment, using insecticides that poison the animals and pollute the streams. They are laying waste to the flora and fauna of this beautiful redwoods area–the same area inhabited by Adam. They are armed and dangerous.
Enter Sara, a member of the ‘sovereign citizen movement.’ She insists that she is not under the rule of the ‘Republic of California’–not its police, highway patrol or any of its laws, including the one that demands a driver wear a seatbelt. When she is pulled over and refuses to comply with law officers, her much beloved dog is taken to a shelter. This is only the beginning of her problems. About 40 years old, when she meets the 25-year-old Adam, the two outlaws who want to stick it to the man are a dangerous couple. Fueled by sexual desire and paranoid worldviews, they are a lethal combination.
High school housekeeping: This is a wild story, high-octane fuel that will appeal to teens. Its author, T. C. Boyle is also one of today’s great writers. Here, his description and pacing is extraordinary. So much more the reason for grabbing a copy of The Harder They Come. I think some high school students will snigger at the title, but it’s the perfect fit for the story, which begins in Costa Rica with Sten very irritated because reggae music is always playing. A famous line from a reggae song is “And then the harder they come/The harder they fall, one and all.” And boy, is that true in this book.