The title of T.C. Boyle’s latest novel is darkly ironic: There are no blue skies in “Blue Skies.” In Florida, where half the action takes place, skies are gray, swollen with clouds that shower near-perpetual rain on an already sodden landscape. In California, the skies are white with heat, and the earth below bakes in a drought that has been going on for four years. “Or was it five?” wonders Ottilie, the Santa Barbara matriarch of the bicoastal family that is the subject of “Blue Skies,” and whom Boyle subjects to an escalating series of ecological and personal catastrophes over the course of seven years.

Boyle is vague about environmental damage as the story begins, more or less in the present. Ottilie is aware of the adjustments she and husband Frank have made to accommodate an increasingly unfriendly climate, but she doesn’t quite register their significance. The drought “hadn’t affected her and Frank all that much,” she thinks, “especially since they’d uprooted the lawn and had it replaced with the wood chips Frank insisted on spraying with fire retardant, just to be on the safe side.” Wildfires and endless drought are the new normal, and even Ottilie’s efforts to do her part for sustainability rest on comfortable middle-class assumptions soon to be overtaken by events.

Ottilie is prodded into these eco-conscious efforts by her son Cooper, a graduate student in entomology perennially nagging everyone about the death of the planet. Boyle’s satire has lost none of its edge over the course of a nearly half-century literary career; Cooper is a self-righteous boor, and he gets a grim comeuppance early in the novel, when an infected tick bite leads to the amputation of his right forearm. But Boyle also shows us the vulnerability at the core of Cooper’s obnoxious behavior, the need of a nerdy kid dubbed “bug boy” in junior high to proclaim the moral superiority of his interests and concerns.

Human beings’ dogged capacity to endure is one of Boyle’s central themes, but this does not, in his depiction, necessarily make them admirable. Across the continent, Cooper’s sister Cat lives in an expensive Florida beach house with her fiancé, Todd, a Bacardí “ambassador” who globe-trots throwing lavish parties on the rum company’s dime. Cat impulsively buys a Burmese python because she aspires to be an influencer; draping a snake around her neck will give her a cool look for her social media postings. She’s unquestionably shallow and self-absorbed, missing several blatantly dropped narrative hints that keeping a large, wild reptile as a pet is not a good idea. But Cat is also lonely and basically good-hearted, a popular denizen of the local bar where she hangs out and drinks too much during Todd’s frequent absences. Everybody in the novel drinks too much, which is one way to blunt the impact of the disasters Boyle piles on them.

Those disasters are depicted with an expert blend of suspense, terror and, occasionally, very black humor. In the first of several bravura scenes, Cat’s wedding to Todd at her parents’ home is disrupted by winds that set the canopies and tableware flying and chase everyone into the house, where the electricity cuts out and the aggrieved caterer declares she can’t serve dinner “under these conditions.” Packed shoulder-to-shoulder, “eating cold entrees off handheld plates,” the family assumes things can’t get worse – until someone smells smoke and spots fire on the ridge behind the house. Nine months later, Ottilie drives through a roadbed writhing with Siamese walking catfish, crushing them under her wheels as she races a hurricane to reach her pregnant daughter, alone and in labor as the waters rise around her house so fast that an ambulance cannot get through. High winds, faltering electricity and wildfires are not outside the norm in California today, although the road-walking catfish seem to be products of Boyle’s apocalyptic imagination. Nonetheless, the catastrophes he invents seem to be all-too-plausible possibilities for the near future.

By the end, Boyle shows us the infrastructure of modern civilization disintegrating in tandem with the natural environment we have thoughtlessly plundered and polluted. It is not a cheerful finale, but in the closing pages, we see Ottilie, Frank, Cat and Cooper adapting to what would once have been unthinkable circumstances and even looking ahead to a future. It is not at all clear that Boyle shares his characters’ optimism (or is it obliviousness?), but this fiercely honest writer shows us what he sees and invites his readers to draw their own conclusions.

Wendy Smith is a two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s Excellence in Reviewing citation and the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.