"When the Killing's Done" by T.C.Boyle

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Are vegetarians more ethical than other people? Quite a few vegetarians appear in T.C.Boyle's

When the Killing's Done

Definitely not every one of them is ethical, though they think they are noble.

"Meat is murder," says Anise, girlfriend of the least ethical and most despicable character in the book. "Eggs are murder too." The boyfriend, Dave LaJoy (ironically named as even his vast wealth, luxury mansion in Montecito, and luxury yacht give him no real joy) doesn't eat meat -- he does eat eggs. Meatlessness doesn't help his disposition: he goes into rages when he doesn't get his way, and he becomes more and more vicious and vengeful throughout the book. Professing to love living creatures and want to protect them, he commits a number of really horrific acts. In contrast, Rita, mother of Anise, once lived on the last sheep ranch on Santa Cruz in the Channel Islands; Boyle un-ironically portrays her love of her sheep, her dedication to tending them, and simultaneously, the way she loves to cook and eat their meat.

Alma, the main and much more likable character in the book, is also a vegetarian, but her job involves killing a number of animals. She's an ecologist, and has done research on Guam where the brown snake, introduced accidentally, has proliferated and done incredible damage, utterly changing the environment. Alma wants to save Santa Cruz from similar disasters due to non-native species, so her work requires that she oversee the killing of feral rats and pigs. Dave LaJoy's pretense is that he wants to save these animals from death: his actual motive more and more clearly is some sort of vendetta against Alma. Boyle presents the scientific, ethical, and human issues in this conflict, and though he makes the reader admire and like Alma and despise Dave, I think he leaves the ethics open. Also the question of vegetarianism.

The book has several intertwined themes and stories. Besides the story of Anise and her mother, there are other personal histories. Dave's rise to wealth that gives him no joy is one. Alma's story starts with the boat accident that took the lives of her grandfather and his brother, and the survival of her grandmother who managed to get to shore at Santa Cruz Island. Later, her father also dies in a water accident when his Scuba air supply becomes polluted with carbon monoxide. Humans in this book just have a problem with the sea! There's a lot behind the confrontation between Dave and Alma.

I thought about Santa Barbara as Boyle named streets, landmarks, and businesses that played a role in the plot. I'm looking forward to being there again next month and will think of this book in connection with Garden Street, Anacapa Street, Bath Street, the freeway through town, Stern's Wharf and the Marina, the elaborate tile in the Courthouse, the Lobero theater, and even Lazy Acres, my favorite grocery store, all mentioned.

And here's a photo from our 2003 trip to the Channel Islands. I thought of this trip as I read Boyle's descriptions along with all the action that takes place there:

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