nolead begins By T.C. Boyle

Ecco. $27.99. 400 pages nolead ends nolead begins

Reviewed by Bob Hoover

Living in Santa Barbara, Calif., novelist T.C. Boyle knows the Pacific Ocean and its beautiful coastline well. He also believes that area comes with a serious liability: humans.

They've been exploiting the land and water for years. Even the well-meaning have managed to upset nature's balancing act, as he told us in his last two novels, When the Killing's Done and San Miguel.

Things are still out of sync these days in his new book, The Harder They Come, not only in the ocean and forests, but in the living rooms and bedrooms of Homo sapiens. Life is out of joint. These Californians are relying more and more on "Two-Buck Chuck" and pharmaceuticals to make it through the day, instead of finding sustenance for the soul in the gorgeous sunsets and crashing waves.

Some have simply rejected civilization itself, following their own ideas of freedom. Sara Jennings and Adam Stensen are an unhappy couple struggling with their demons in Mendocino County, north of San Francisco.

Sara is a 40-year-old animal groomer whose life falls apart when she's pulled over for refusing to wear a seat belt. It's her feeble statement that "she was a sovereign citizen . . . and she didn't now and never would again acknowledge anybody's illegitimate authority over her." The police aren't convinced, and she's arrested.

Adam is in his mid-20s, a mentally ill survivalist who models his life after John Coulter, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition and legendary loner of the wilderness. Adam has been in trouble with the law, too, and finds a natural ally in Sara, who appreciates his muscular body despite his bizarre behavior.

To this unstable blend Boyle adds Adam's parents, Carolee and Sten Stensen, a retired Fort Bragg couple recently back from a Costa Rican tour. There was a bit of unpleasantness on the trip - the 70-year-old Marine choked a would-be robber to death and the grateful local authorities sent him home scot free - but otherwise, they're making do despite their son's difficulties.

(Boyle's jaundiced view of Central American safety and justice is both hilarious and politically incorrect.)

This demi-paradise is also home to growers of marijuana for Mexican cartels cultivating land left exposed after loggers cleared it - circumstances that prod the citizenry to prowl the woods in search of miscreants.

Slowly cooked to a bloody boil, Boyle's formula for chaos threatens to foam over. Sten "felt nothing but anger . . . the gangs had taken over, there'd be beheadings next, bodies hanging from bridges like in Tijuana, the forests lost and all hope of peace and tranquillity flown out the window. . . . "

"The world's too much" with these ordinary decent people who feel overwhelmed by forces beyond their control. Boyle's frenetic pace captures this desperation, but at a speed that leaves little time for his characters to take a breath and contemplate their lives. When Adam finally goes over the edge and hightails it with a rifle, the story takes a bloody turn for the worst.

The Harder They Come is the 66-year-old Boyle's 15th novel, displaying his characteristic energy, smart cultural references, and talent for physical description. It's the emotional element that takes second place here, though, leaving an unfinished feel to the work.