Some 30 pages into When the Killing's Done, an eco-novel as rewarding as it is frustrating, T.C. Boyle describes the arms of a shipwrecked woman as being like "dead things." Some 130 pages later we get "dead things" again. again describing the limbs of a character in serious distress. That phrase and that feeling turn up again and again in Boyle's fiction (twice in Drop City, three times in The Road to Wellville), demonstrating both the extremes his protagonists get pushed to, usually just after they think they're on top, as well as the truth that the author's vaunted, flame-throwing prose-engine isn't always burning premium. But at times it is. The survival tale that opens When the Killing's Done is world-class adventure writing, the kind that clutches the heart, and there's a nervy greatness in later passages concerning a raven assault on a flock of sheep and a band of animal rights activists' ill-fated monkey-wrenching with a National Park Service plan to eliminate invasive predators from a California island. Between these highs, though, Boyle stews us in the minds of a pair of one-note consciousnesses: neurotic Alma, an NPS scientist dedicated to saving endangered animals by killing off flourishing ones, and furious Dave, a hardcore save-every-rat type who is dispiritingly quick to call Alma "gook." Boyle is playing with urgent, fascinating issues, and when he fully marshals his powers his story dazzles, but these people — damn it, they're dead things. Boyle speaks at 6 p.m. tonight at the Commonwealth Club, 595 Market (at Second St.). For tickets, visit www.commonwealthclub.org.
By Blood, the obsessive and suspenseful second novel by Silicon Valley coder turned writer Ellen Ullman, is the kind of book that I wish didn't come with dust-jacket copy or online reviews or the inevitable paperback cover. The great pleasure of Ullman's story is not knowing, and not the usual not-knowing of which characters will survive or whether goals will, after some trial, be achieved. The suspense, here, is in not knowing who these people are — or what they'll do to each other if and when they finally connect. In the opening pages, an academic rents an office in a gloomy, gargoyled building near Market Street in 1974. His goal is to prepare a lecture about Aeschylus, but quickly he gets caught up in a tragedy of his here-and-now: Through the walls, he hears a psychiatrist conducting tense sessions with a lesbian haunted by an uncertain past. And then there's the man pleasuring himself on a ledge across the street. And then there's — well, tempting as it is to dish about the revelations to come in this complex, jittery thriller of shrinks and voyeurs and identity itself, I've probably said too much already. Ever wonder how Kafka would be if he'd grown up on '70s DePalma films? Ullman will read as much as she can without spoiling anything at 7 p.m. at Tosca Cafe, 242 Columbus (at Broadway). For more information, visit www.citylights.com.