By Hector Tobar
September 16, 2012
Viking: 367 pp., $27.95
T.C. Boyle's new novel, "San Miguel," is written to the natural rhythms of a distant, isolated place, and to the human rhythms of tormented souls.
San Miguel Island is a real place, the westernmost of the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California. In Boyle's book, it's a patch of earth beyond the end of the western frontier, a place where the mythical western ethos makes its last stand.
"Terra incognita," one of his characters calls it. "Terra insolita … the last scrap of land the continent had to offer, an island tossed out in the ocean like an afterthought."
"San Miguel" tells the story of the people who lived there in the final decade of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th. They raise sheep, living an often-harsh existence amid seals, eagles and storms that sweep in from the Pacific.
Members of a single family, and their occasional, transient employees, the residents of San Miguel tend to a ranch. They feel entirely isolated from most of the rest of the world, even though Santa Barbara is just a few hours away (by boat).
"People called it the Graveyard of the Pacific," a young woman who lives on the island observes, after noting the many ships destroyed on its rocks. "She called it Nowhere."
"San Miguel" is the prolific Boyle's 14th novel. As always, he fills his pages with wonderfully precise character studies and lush descriptions of the physical landscape.
But "San Miguel" is perhaps too faithful to the true story of its protagonists to be a truly outstanding work of art. Many of Boyle's characters in "San Miguel" feel marooned. And reading his account of their island lives can leave you feeling as if you've been cast adrift along with them.
Boyle's protagonists are three women. These include the ill and irritable Marantha Waters, who arrives with her husband and adopted daughter on New Year's Day 1888. Ostensibly, Marantha's there to recuperate from a consumptive lung disease that is slowly killing her, one painful cough at a time. "It was primitive," Boyle writes of the island. "Untainted. Fresh. Fresh air, the air that would cure her." But the island turns out to be, surprisingly, as wet and windy as San Francisco, the city that made Marantha sick in the first place.
Throughout his career, Boyle has shown a fascination with remote, forgotten places as a kind of stage where the various shadings of the American character are revealed. In the outstanding "World's End," it was the Hudson River Valley; in "East Is East," an island off the coast of Georgia.
Marantha's husband, Will, is a Civil War veteran. When he brings his family to San Miguel, it's just two years before the Census Bureau will famously declare the American frontier closed. Like generations of pioneers before him, Will is determined to make a go of it, the elements and the economy be damned.
Marantha endures him. Weeks turn into months as she pines for cosmopolitan San Francisco, or even a decent meal in Santa Barbara. She scolds her willful daughter and pesters her husband for an early emancipation from her island prison. Sometimes this makes for compelling reading, and sometimes it doesn't.
The novel gets a burst of energy in the second section, which is told from the point of view of Edith, Marantha's teenage daughter. In her mother's absence, Will treats Edith as a kind of indentured servant, even as she grows into adulthood. Soon Edith is transformed into a willful woman with a 20th century outlook — and is caught, unfortunately, in a very 19th century kind of drama. Her repeated attempts to seduce her way off the island (a group of Mexican sheep shearers and others visit) are vintage Boyle moments.
The novel's third section jumps ahead to 1930, when Elise and Herbie Lester arrive on the island. They are two newlyweds and have the last stretch of the pure, unpopulated West all to themselves. They even make love in the open air. But here Boyle's prose begins to lose its sharpness and sense of urgency. "The years scrolled by, 1935, '36, '37, '38, the outside world canting toward the conflagration to come," he writes. "In the Lester household, there was tranquility."
Two girls are born to the Lesters. As airplanes and radios make their contact with the outside world more frequent, the family members become celebrities. A local paper dubs them "The Swiss Family Lester." A tragic ending awaits, though Boyle does little in the shaping of his characters and their story to build toward it.
In the end, much of "San Miguel" feels like an elegant retelling of a collection of not-entirely-suspenseful diaries — according to an author's note, contemporary accounts formed much of the book's source material. It's as if Boyle intended merely to bear witness to the lives of his characters, rather than to create art from their experiences. And yet, bearing witness requires craft too, and Boyle's ample narrative gifts still make "San Miguel" worthwhile reading.
For lovers of California literature especially, "San Miguel" will be a welcome addition to their reading lists. But should you choose to land on its shores, prepare yourself: Living on an island can take a bit of fortitude.
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