A Family Drama Unfolds as Ecological Disasters Mount

BLUE SKIES, by T.C. Boyle

“Blue Skies,” T.C. Boyle’s 19th novel, opens with Cat, a would-be social media influencer living on the imperiled Florida coast, buying a pet Burmese python as a piece of “living jewelry” she hopes will boost her Instagram account. Having been denied her other hoped-for adornments (a baby or a dog or even a cat), she makes her reptilian purchase from the owner of a store regrettably named Herps, who promises, “Nothing’ll make you happier than having a snake in your life.”

Across the country in California, Cat’s mother, Ottilie, also seeks a capitalistic solution to her own emotional dilemma: the climate guilt laid on her by her son, Cooper, an entomologist who hectors her about “the death of the planet … the Anthropocene, our species a curse, et cetera.” Ottilie buys a countertop cricket reactor, planning to farm “high-fiber, low-fat protein” that she’ll gently slaughter in her freezer, lulling the insects “to their deaths in the most humane way possible.”

Many other striking and sometimes dangerous interactions with the wild and the barely domesticated follow, as the characters navigate a series of escalating ecological disasters. Willie, Cat’s Burmese python, is quickly lost and replaced by the even bigger Willie II, who, after the first Willie is found again, is forced to cohabitate with his smaller namesake. Cat, separated by a continent from her family for most of the novel, navigates a Florida downpour while being stalked by the “dull corrugated” shape of an eight-foot alligator. The morning of a funeral, she witnesses a pod of dolphins offshore, an “omen” that precedes her first new mosquito bite after a sudden, inexplicable die-off of insects around the world.

In the wake of a devastating court date, Cat swims in the Atlantic, plunging underwater to imagine breathing “water instead of air, dissolving into the blackness like the jellyfish and the octopi and every other agglomeration of cells careening on the currents.” It’s a communion Cat doesn’t fully comprehend, its spell broken by her absently stepping on “a thing as mysterious as the night, alive in its own skin,” a creature she never identifies: “Like a blessing, it was there and then it was gone.”

Cat gets more than her share of these encounters, but the most memorable might be Ottilie’s driving a rental car over “a conveyor of living flesh” made of invasive Siamese walking catfish, their “thousands of pairs of eyes glinting in the beam of the headlights as far as she could see.” Ottilie doesn’t “want any creature to suffer, not even an alien species that was actively degrading the ecosystem,” but when pressed she chooses human need over nonhuman survival. With Cat 20 minutes away and going into labor during a potential hurricane, Ottilie drives on, “slowly at first, tenderly almost, wincing as the fish squirted and popped under the wheels.”

Wincing, but not stopping. Such is the mode of many of this family’s theoretically eco-conscious choices: They guilt, they grumble, they rage, they go on. The entomologist Cooper is the most strident environmentalist among them, before and after he loses part of an arm to a tick-borne infection, an event he bitterly terms his “abridgment.” “It’s beyond useless,” he argues, seething at the techno-utopian turn one dinner conversation takes, shaking his mechanical fist at the gathering’s dreams of carbon capture and geoengineering quick fixes. “Nature bites back. That’s what this is all about. Literally, in my case.”

As “Blue Skies” progresses, Boyle’s tone grows increasingly elegiac, or perhaps only more satirical. His characters mourn the loss of certain rich pleasures some Americans may have long taken for granted, a life of supposed luxury built on pollution and suffering elsewhere, the deferred cost of which is now coming due at home. Boyle has always been a foodie writer, and much of “Blue Skies” unfolds at what increasingly feel like last suppers for the bourgeoisie, where Ottilie’s crunchy cricket tacos are served up alongside climate-anxiety hand wringing and lamentations about the rising cost of wine from the wildfire-plagued Napa Valley.

No matter how well-intended, a dinner lecture about climate change fixes little if it only results in a release of nervous energy. It’s not enough to have right ideas if right action doesn’t follow, and at scale. But what can the average person do? And how much should what happens to this one family matter, when they are up against Boyle’s convincing dramatization of the man-made troubles endangering the natural world and humanity’s place in it?

Like some other ostensible climate fictions, “Blue Skies” is less a novel about what might be done about the climate crisis and more an accomplished family drama with a climate-crisis setting. But if Cat and Ottilie and Cooper can’t act globally, that doesn’t mean Boyle imagines no one can. Near the novel’s finale, a previously unmentioned billionaire whose wealth grants him nearly unlimited agency makes a highly questionable (and scientifically dubious) attempt to geoengineer the stratosphere, lowering the global temperature a full degree. Boyle — perhaps playing devil’s advocate — asks the reader to ponder the likely side effects: “If the particles interfered with the scattering of electromagnetic radiation so that the sky would appear more white than blue, it was a trade-off everybody could live with. Wasn’t it?”

Boyle doesn’t offer his own clear answer. Maybe he doesn’t need to. At this stage of the climate game, it shouldn’t take much prodding to convince us that there’s plenty of work to do if we don’t want our own families to be forced to answer Boyle’s thought problem. And what needs to happen will be a lot more challenging than persuading the formerly comfortable to make peace with yet another round of chapulines and cricket cobbler.

Matt Bell is the author, most recently, of “Appleseed” and “Refuse to Be Done: How to Write and Rewrite a Novel in Three Drafts.”

BLUE SKIES | By T.C. Boyle | 367 pp. | Liveright Publishing | $30

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