Water Music (1981), T. Coraghessan Boyle’s first novel, is a black-humor vision of England, Scotland, and Africa in the late eighteenth century, a picaresque satire inspired by the life of explorer Mungo Park, in which many of the conventions of eighteenth and nineteenth century English novels are lampooned. Boyle’s second novel, Budding Prospects (1984), deals with a group of hapless marijuana growers in northern California, amoral pursuers of the materialistic side of the American dream. In World’s End, his third novel (he has also published two collections of short stories), Boyle combines the concerns of his earlier books into an account of the conflicts among Dutch and English settlers and native Indians of the Hudson River Valley of New York in the seventeenth century and the effects of these conflicts on their twentieth century descendants. Just as he embraced and spoofed English literary traditions in Water Music, Boyle here employs the mythical view of America so central to the fiction of such writers as Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and William Faulkner. In examining some of America’s literary and historical myths, Boyle dramatizes the nation’s self-destructive impulse.
Oloffe Van Wart is granted a patroonship in what is now northern Westchester County, and in 1663, Harmanus Van Brunt and his family arrive from Holland to work on one of the farms of the patroon, the supreme ruler over everyone on his land. The Van Brunt farm is cursed even before the family begins to work it. The land has previously been settled by Wolf Nysen, a Swede who went berserk and destroyed his family, and before that, Minewa, the daughter of Sachoes, chief of the Kitchawanks, was eaten there by a Mohawk.
The Van Brunts are soon faced with one catastrophe after another. Jeremias, the eldest son, loses a leg to a snapping turtle. Harmanus is stricken by an insatiable hunger, eats virtually all the family’s food, and throws himself off a ridge. His daughter, Katrinchee, runs away with Mohonk, the son of Sachoes. After his mother dies, the adolescent Jeremias is left responsible for fulfilling his family’s obligations to the patroon. Katrinchee gives birth to a son, later named Jeremy Mohonk, returns to live with her brother, and, in exact opposition to her father, starves herself to death. When Mohonk tries to take his son, Jeremias kills the Indian.
Meanwhile, a vengeful Kitchawank tricks Sachoes into giving all of his land to Van Wart. When Stephanus Van Wart succeeds his father, he is even more lustful for land, expanding his empire “until he owned every creek and ridge, every fern, every deer and turkey and toad and thistle between the flat gray Hudson and the Connecticut border.” The dictatorial Stephanus enjoys making life miserable for Jeremias, who now has a wife, six children, and a nephew to support. When Stephanus has Jeremias’ son Wouter and Jeremy Mohonk arrested because his tenant refuses to obey orders, the stubborn, rebellious Jeremias finally cracks and begs the patroon’s forgiveness. After finding Wolf Nysen’s corpse, Jeremias, like his father, becomes the victim of the hunger and eats himself to death.
Stephanus decides to kick Wouter, his brother-in-law Cadwallader Crane, and Jeremy Mohonk off their lands. After Wouter sets the patroon’s barn on fire, he blames his closest friends, and Crane and Mohonk are hanged.
In alternating chapters, Boyle traces the lives of these seventeenth century characters’ descendants in the twentieth century. Another Jeremy Mohonk, the last of the Kitchawanks, tries to reclaim the land of his birthright in 1929, strikes back when Rombout Van Wart assaults him, and serves seventeen years in Sing Sing. In 1949, Truman Van Brunt, like his ancestor, betrays his friends and relatives. He pretends to be a Communist sympathizer but arranges for thugs stirred up by Depeyster (Dipe) Van Wart, Rombout’s son, to attack a group of defenseless leftist picnickers. He then leaves his wife and son with no explanation, causing Christina, like Katrinchee, to lose her will to live.
Most of the twentieth century scenes revolve around Truman’s son, Walter, who has been reared by Communist friends of his mother. Walter is torn between the counterculture life of the late 1960’s led by friends such as Tom Crane, a distant relative of Cadwallader, and the wealth and position exemplified by Dipe Van Wart. In an incident reminiscent of Jeremias’ fate, Walter loses his right foot when his...