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T.C. Boyle sees ‘Blue Skies’ through the smoke and rain

As California burns and Florida sinks into the sea, the Cullens try to keep their lives together.
 
T.C. Boyle's new novel is "Blue Skies."
T.C. Boyle's new novel is "Blue Skies." [ C. Jamieson Fry ]
Published May 11

In his latest novel, “Blue Skies,” T.C. Boyle comes up with a new variation on the literary principal of Chekhov’s gun: If a character in a Florida story acquires a pet Burmese python, sooner or later that python will eat something it shouldn’t.

“Blue Skies” is the 31st work of fiction by Boyle, a longtime California resident who’s been collecting literary prizes since he began publishing in the 1970s. Satire has often been an important element in his work, and environmental disaster a running theme, and both are at play in this ironically titled, beautifully crafted novel.

Beginning in the present day, it follows the lives of the Cullen family about a decade into the future. Father Frank, a doctor, and mom Ottilie live comfortably (well, for a while) in suburban California, and their son, Cooper, a graduate student in entomology, lives nearby.

Cooper has been fascinated with nature since he was a kid — his school nickname was Bug Boy — and he sees the world through the lens of climate change and the havoc it increasingly causes. It’s safe to say he’s obsessed, and it’s made him a sometimes obnoxious scold about the subject.

His parents earnestly take his advice, especially Ottilie, who acquires something called a cricket reactor so she can raise, then eat, the chirpy and nutritious bugs. Their various efforts to go green don’t do much, though, in the face of the megadrought gripping California with wildfires and punishing windstorms.

And nature seems unimpressed with Cooper’s devotion. He goes out to do insect field collecting with his girlfriend, a tick specialist, and ends up with an infected tick bite that forces the amputation of his lower right arm — what he calls, with bitter humor, his “abridgement.”

“’Nature bites back,’ he said. ‘That’s what this is all about. Literally, in my case.’”

As California grows ever hotter and rain becomes a distant memory, daughter Cat Cullen is living in Florida, which is just as hot but much, much wetter — the rain almost never stops.

Cat moved to Florida when her boyfriend, Todd, suddenly inherited his mother’s oceanfront house near Jacksonville. Neither of them could have afforded to buy the house, given the ephemeral nature of their jobs. Todd is a brand ambassador for a rum manufacturer, which involves hosting parties in a tux and flirting with lots of women. Cat is not even an influencer, that most paper-thin of jobs, but an aspiring influencer.

At first she’s thrilled with the beach house, but Todd travels a lot and she doesn’t know anyone in Florida. Her boredom and restlessness, along with her need to have a gimmick on TikTok, get us to that python. She sees a massive one in a store window and ends up buying a somewhat smaller snake, even though she knows nothing about them, thinking she can wear it as a fashion accessory.

Todd isn’t thrilled, but he gets over it, and they start planning their wedding. Held outdoors at her parents’ home in California, it’s a lovely affair — until a windstorm starts flipping tents and tables, and the smell of smoke drifts in.

Back home in Florida, Cat and Todd have to park his pride and joy, a Tesla S, in a bar parking lot blocks away and walk, or wade, to their house. The house is on stilts, but the ever-rising tides flood the streets regularly and chew away at the sand, leaving Cat to muse, “What good was beachfront property if there was no beach?”

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Nine months after the wedding, Todd is out of town when Cat’s twins are due, and Ottilie flies, then drives, into a hurricane to get to her daughter.

Then things really go bad.

Understandably, given these multiplying disasters and a world that seems less habitable every day, all of the Cullens feel anxious. All of them tend to self-medicate that anxiety with alcohol, which leads to more disasters, which ... well, on the plus side, they’re devoted to each other.

Boyle does a brilliant job of writing about an enormous subject in utterly human terms. He draws the Cullens with all their flaws but with tender affection, too. Amid the climate apocalypse, life goes on, which is, maybe, a sign of hope.

Blue Skies

By T.C. Boyle

Livewright, 384 pages, $30

Meet the author

T.C. Boyle will be in conversation with author and journalist Craig Pittman at 7 p.m. May 15 at Tombolo Books, 2153 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg. Free; RSVP at tombolobooks.com/events.