T.C. Boyle’s A Friend of the Earth could be a fun read for tree huggers and tree spikers alike. In a narrative split between the climate battered world of 2025 and life as a circa 1990 ecosaboteur, environmental doom meets righteously taking on the system. Supporters of Deep Green Resistance, Earth First!, the Earth Liberation Front, or Stop Fossil Fuels are reminded of the climate chaos and mass extinction we’re fighting to head off, and can vicariously (and safely) enjoy the thrill of underground, illegal tactics against a system immune to transformation from within.
The book falls short of its potential, reflecting real life limitations of early (and all too much contemporary) monkeywrencher culture: misogyny and an absence of strategy. This is understandable, since the book was published in 2000 before activist rape culture and toxic male behavior was being called out, and before serious analysis of how to bring down the industrial economy was readily available. If the reader can accept these historic limitations, she can probably still enjoy the book for what it is.
To get past those shortcomings, let’s discuss the negatives first. The protagonist, Ty Tierwater, is 40 and 75 years old in the two narrative time frames. At both ages, he heavily objectifies women, as do most of the other male characters, and he’s obsessed with sex. Maybe this is meant to be cute in a 75 year old man, but is in fact offensive, boring, and distracting in both time periods. Ty mentions many (many) times the large size of his wife Andrea’s breasts (and, oddly, her hands), but at least her personality is also fleshed out in some depth. None of the supporting characters are fully convincing as real people, but Andrea comes as close as anyone. Their daughter is less well developed, but adequately so, and at least she’s subject to less sexual objectification than most of the female characters.
At ages 40 and 75, Ty has the emotional maturity of someone half his age—impulsive, reckless, alcoholic, bickering, self pitying, jealous, easily distracted by petty revenge—a case study of someone you don’t want in your underground affinity group. Presumably he’s meant to be an antihero, but his unnecessary misogyny on top of all this moves him to the very margins of being a sympathetic character. (Or perhaps beyond the margins; it’s easy for me as a male to find his woman-hating to be merely annoying, but others may, understandably, give up on the book entirely.)
A Friend of the Earth also suffers from rampant nihilism. The opening torrential rains which will, we’re told, inevitably give way to punishing heat and drought, warn us from the start that the activists’ 1990 efforts to save the world are doomed. Given their absence of strategy, their failure makes sense, but Ty and the book as a whole relish hopelessness, martyrdom, and juvenile lashing out, rather than an adult approach to solving an (admittedly massive) problem. Even Ty’s motivation to protect the earth is more of a passionless “just cause” than the love of someone in relationship with his non-human community members. The book repeatedly depicts humans losing against nature when they stray from the role of subjugator, further undermining the gravity of Ty’s work.
Resignation to failure is understandably common for activists burned out by a failing strategy, but Boyle could choose a different emotional theme. The book hints early on at renewed struggle by the older-yet-wiser activists in the 2025 time frame, with Andrea declaring “Earth Forever! is going to fly again, in a big way.” But Boyle abandons this plot point, instead allowing the book to wallow in despair amidst a broken world. This may realistically depict many one-time activists, but it doesn’t make for a satisfying story. More damningly, it demoralizes rather than inspires readers, including potential activists needed to derail the future Boyle clearly recognizes as a real danger. With the world at stake, using his authorial gifts so perversely is irresponsible.
The plot moves forward quickly and keeps the reader engrossed. Ty’s irascible narration, though at times over-the-top, generally convincingly portrays a flawed man doing his best to protect the animals he (at least abstractly) loves.
The book excels in its realistic, if unflattering, baring of the failures of the environmental movement. An early nonviolent direct action illustrates the futility of such tactics in the absence of media coverage. The physical danger to the blockaders, unprotected in the absence of witnesses against the sadism of agents of the state, is frighteningly accurate. In the aftermath, Ty and his comrades ratchet up their struggle with tactics straight out of Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching. (This escalation is appropriate for the environmental movement as a whole, but since Ty and his fellow arrestees are known to the state as aboveground environmentalists, taking up underground action seriously violates the firewall between above- and belowground actionists—a security error all too common among real life activists, even today.)
Ty has some success with his monkeywrenching campaign, wreaking havoc on many earth destroying machines. But as with most real life underground actors in the past decades, he chooses minor targets. Local battles are temporarily won, but the industrial economy at large is allowed to proceed unhindered, and the larger war is therefore lost. Ty exemplifies Lierre Keith’s critique of acting like a vandal rather than thinking like a field general, and the real life experience of busted ecosaboteur Michael Carter around 1990: “We had some vague ideas about tactics but no manual, no concrete theory. […] We had little strategy and the actions were impetuous. If we’d been robbing banks instead, we’d have been shot in the act.” (Carter’s full interview is a fascinating reflection on ecosabotage gone wrong.)
Ty and his comrades belong to Earth Forever!, a conflation (understandable as a simplifying literary device) of Earth First! and Big Green NGOs. Boyle captures well the tension between directly stopping destruction of the land through small scale illegal action, vs garnering donations and political clout by working within the system. (It’s easy to be cynical now about the latter approach, but in 1990 it probably wasn’t as obvious that obediently begging for the scraps of reform dispensed to the well behaved gives no hope of changing the system’s trajectory.)
Since, as in real life, neither Ty nor Earth Forever! act to materially challenge the industrial economy, it falls to an eccentric 2025 pop star, with Ty’s employed help, to play God in deciding which species live or die. As the biblical rains fall and the floodwaters rise, the reader wonders whether they’ll succeed with those animals deemed worthy—or perhaps stops caring, with a shrug of “too little too late.”
If you can get past the misogyny, A Friend of the Earth is worth the read. Just be aware that unless your thing is doomer collapsism, you won’t find satisfaction and fulfillment here. A great tale could be spun of ecosaboteurs who bring down the electric grid, halting industrial destruction and proving themselves true friends of the earth. Until then, enjoy T.C. Boyle’s work for what it is.