WE'VE ALL DREAMED of going Jimmy Buffett—rebooting our lives on some remote island—but sometimes those moated kingdoms aren't all they're cracked up to be. Two new novels explore the underside of island life, where isolation breeds despair and the appearance of strangers—be they two-legged or four—can knock the whole system out of whack.
Three years ago, frequent Outside contributor David Vann's debut story collection, Legend of a Suicide, hinted at great things to come. Greatness has arrived: Caribou Island (HarperCollins, $26) is a powerful first novel of love, lust, and regret set on an island near Soldotna, a fishing town on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula. "Those who couldn't fit anywhere else came here," Vann writes, "and if they couldn't cling to anything here, they just fell off the edge." Vann, who grew up in Alaska, charts three couples as their relationships tip toward failure. Irene and Gary hub the story; an older couple who fled to Alaska years ago, full of hope, they're stuck now with contempt and cold winters. Gary hammers away at his dream cabin, an isolated shack that represents the soured promise of his life. "This was without doubt the ugliest cabin he had ever seen," he realizes, "a thing misunderstood and badly constructed from beginning to end." Writing in a reserved style, Vann slowly and quietly builds the drama toward an emotional gut-punch of an ending—think Cormac McCarthy on ice.
There's nothing reserved about T.C. Boyle, the maximalist who never met a scene he couldn't spin into a fireworks show. In When the Killing's Done (Viking, $27), he pits a Park Service biologist against an animal-rights extremist in a battle over rats. Yes, rats. The story is based loosely on real events, inspired by the early-2000s fight to eradicate bird-killing rodents from Anacapa Island, part of Channel Islands National Park. It's a war of monkey wrenching and rat poison between scientist Alma Takesue and the bumbling radical Dave LaJoy. The opening shipwreck scene will leave you wearing a life jacket in the bathtub, and the plot comes screenplay-ready: LaJoy's band of eco-plotters use ever more creative (and inept) schemes to harass Takesue, who bravely soldiers on in the name of science. But Boyle's rendering of the Channel Islands is the real takeaway: so close to SoCal sprawl, yet so forbidding. "Rock right to the water," he writes, "the cliffs wrapped around so tightly it's like heading into a cave with the top lifted off." When the Killing's Done may be the first island-biogeographical thriller. Whodunnit? Humans, rats, ships, storms, and the hard isolation of island living.