By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: T. C. Boyle
Narration by: Graham Hamilton
“The Harder They Come” is a novel about another America; not the America of idealized history but the America of three generations coping with loss in the twenty-first century. T. C. Boyle creates three characters who feel beaten down by American life. Boyle reflects on their disappointments and perceptions of loss. A young man in his twenties loses identity, a fortyish woman loses faith in government, and a seventy year old loses self-confidence.
Adam, a 25-year-old changes his name to Colter, the name of a member of the 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark Expedition. Colter explores Yellowstone National Park and the Teton Mountain Range in the early 19th century. John Colter is considered by some to be the first American mountain man. Historically, a mountain man is a hermit-like explorer that exchanges fur for the luxuries of life while sleeping in the wilderness and living off the land.
Adam’s assumption of the Colter name is a trans-formative event. Adam uses drugs and alcohol to escape the frustration s of his 21st century life but uses Colter’s historic identity to give him an anthropomorphic purpose in life. Adam becomes a “mountain man”. However, instead of trading furs, Adam plants, harvests, and plans to trade opium for support of an “off-the-grid” life in the wilderness.
Sara is a fortyish divorcee who adopts the philosophy of the sovereign citizen movement. She quotes the 14th amendment of the constitution, and interprets it to say it gives absolute freedom to American citizens. She believes American citizens are above the law, and that any level of government that interferes with her right to do as she wishes is an infringement on her independent sovereignty. Though she considers herself non-violent, she appreciates actions of domestic terrorists like Timothy McVeigh who murdered 168 men, women, and children in Oklahoma City.
Sten Stenson is a veteran of the Vietnam War. He is now 70 years old. As an ex-Marine and former high school principal, he is retired. Sten is a big man; over six-foot, three inches in height. He dislikes getting old but has a brief turn at fame as a 70-year-old hero who kills a would-be robber in Latin America. In looking back at his life, he is reminded of American citizens’ ridicule when he returns from the Vietnam war. In spite of a new claim to fame, he becomes unsure of his purpose in life and regrets having killed anyone either in Vietnam or in Latin America. Sten realizes every human being has a father and mother. He questions the morality of his actions and the value of human life.
Boyle brings these three characters together. Adam is the son of Sten. Sara is Adam’s lover. The extreme behaviors of Adam and Sara are compatible on some level, but Adam’s violence and drug habit compel his complete break from society. Sten loves his son but they have become completely estranged and evidence mounts to show Adam is a lost boy. Sara comes to the same conclusion but is heart-broken when she realizes companionship and emotional commitment are beyond Adam’s interest or inclination.
The anti-climactic denouement of “The Harder They Come” reveals a great deal about another America; i.e. “another America” that is a consequence of a capitalist culture that breeds drug dependence, senseless violence, aberrant cults, and age-group disrespect.