T.C. Boyle’s The Harder They Come is a disturbing reminder that the United States is not immune to the damage that can be done to it by even one or two crazies who have bought into the lunacy advocated by fanatics on either the far left or the far right of the political spectrum. The novel is an intriguing, and very dark, look into the minds of three fragile people who for various reasons are unable to cope capably with the modern world. In the case of two of them, they refuse even to be bound by the laws and mores of the society in which they so precariously live.
Since his son was a boy, Sten Stevens has known that Adam is incapable of functioning on his own and that it is unlikely he will ever be able to do so. But Sten is a veteran of the Vietnam War, and these days it does not take much aggravation to make him fantasize about some violent solution to whatever problem dares confront him. And Sara, who makes her living shoeing horses and substitute-teaching is Sten’s worst nightmare: a woman who believes a whole lot of the things his paranoid son believes and even encourages his reckless behavior.
Within minutes of their arrival, three armed hijackers, two carrying knives and one a pistol, confront the group. Sten, though, when he finally blows his stack becomes an inadvertent hero by surprisingly (he is, after all, in his seventies) overcoming the man with the pistol and running off the two armed only with knives. Sten will not have long to enjoy his notoriety, however, because when he and Carolee get home they learn that Adam is in the middle of a serious schizophrenic break with reality.
And Sara, his much older lover (who as it turns out, is a former colleague of Sten’s), is right there to take advantage of Adam’s state of mind - and to use it for her own purposes.
Boyle uses third-person narration both to tell the individual stories of his three central characters and to tell the tragic one they will ultimately come to share. Beyond a doubt, what happens to Sara and the Stevens family is violent, dark, and terrible to witness. And what makes it all so very sad is that all of it is avoidable and should never have been allowed to happen in the first place.