Remote locale proves trying for characters, author
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.
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. 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.
The novel's third section jumps ahead to 1930, when Elise and Herbie Lester arrive on the island. They are newlyweds and have the last stretch of the pure, unpopulated West all to themselves. 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.
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.
Hector Tobar is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Pirates’ 5-game winning streak ends with 1-0 loss to Brewers
- More companies embrace exchanges to curb health care costs
- Paying tuition a challenge as costs skyrocket and aid varies
- Penguins notebook: Crosby sits, could be out ‘couple days’
- Gas industry remedies ‘brain drain’ in Western Pennsylvania
- Hill District leaders irked as Penguins submit former Civic Arena site plan to city
- Pitt blows 10-point lead as Iowa rallies for win
- Electricity rates expected to increase this winter
- Starkey: Can Steelers’ Mitchell find Carolina cure?
- Penn State rolls past Massachusetts
- Penguins’ Rutherford hopes to raise Cup again