In his latest anthropological satire, the prolific T.C. Boyle has created Drop City, a circa-1970, rural California, hippie commune which seems to have taken its inspiration less from Emerson or Thoreau, or any other breed of American transcendentalism, than from a few bummed-out issues of Zap Comix.
Boyle’s commune is a hyperbolic thing, blown up for humorous purposes, but with so much detail it could be mistaken for thinly veiled reportage. It’s believably awful, everyone’s worst idea of what a commune would be like, an overwhelmingly unsanitary mess inhabited by self-absorbed zombies, continually stoned and ill-equipped to pull off their back-to-nature project. Boyle’s hippies talk a good “peace, love and freedom” game, and they’ve made great strides in the eschewing of conventional ambition, but they’ve so internalized the suburban values that they think they’ve escaped that they go after pleasure with the doggedness of a sublimated work ethic, seemingly unaware that chasing bliss with too much persistence becomes the pursuit of diminishing returns.
Not that it matters too much, since bliss, self-awareness and all that good stuff seem to be secondary concerns in Drop City, if not in the whole ’60’s counterculture movement, whose main raison d’être, one could infer from this novel, was that it was a clever construct for scamming chicks. In Drop City, the guys (or “cats” as Boyle has his characters anachronistically saying) do what little heavy lifting there is and make most of the bogus philosophical pronouncements, while the chicks do the nearly nonstop cooking, string beads and perform the other chores they’ve obviously been designed for. This includes supplying sex on request, since it would be just too uncool to question the concept of “free love,” as misleading a term as anything the military-industrial complex has ever devised. The brave new world turns out to be a variation on the same old thing, with the success of male mischievousness being contingent on female complicity in the ancient trade-off of sex for (in this case relative) security.
This is all richly ironic, but it’s only half of what Drop City is about. The other half is set in Alaska and is introduced in chapters that alternate with the California story, until about halfway through the book when they predictably and satisfyingly combine. While the Drop City gang are wannabes trying to inhabit some romantic concept of living cut off from society, the inhabitants of the Alaskan wilderness are the real thing. By moving back and forth between their stories, Boyle is contrasting idealistic dropouts with practical ones, people who try to will themselves into becoming outsiders with those who are born that way. The Alaskans may be antisocial by temperament, but they’re also impressively resourceful partly because they feel they have no default life waiting in the wings.
Drop City is run by Norm Sender, who inherited 47 acres of farmland and decided, in his late 30s, that it was time to realize his utopian dream, summed up by his formula-for-catastrophe slogan: “Land Access To Which Is Denied No One.” Although Boyle populates the commune with a gallery of memorable (and recognizable if you were around back then) types, the main Droppers are Star, a young woman free-floating enough to wind up in this circus, but smart enough to question its tenets; her appalling and manipulative boyfriend, Pan; and Marco, the only person in the commune who actually seems up to its challenges. When Norm’s mismanagement of the commune gets him into legal trouble, he decides to uproot and move to Alaska, taking along the willing faithful.
The star of the Alaskan section is Cecil “Sess” Harder, the exemplary wilderness man who owns a cabin just down the river from where Norm and his gang are going to settle. Once the Drop City crew arrives in Alaska, the tone, while still absurdist-tinged, becomes decidedly more serious, as any ideas the communards had about being one with nature begin falling aside as they confront its indifferent cruelties.
Boyle is an interesting combination of popular and serious novelist, writing a page-turner with a lot of heavy intent, if seemingly a bit more than he can handle. At one point, as though harsh weather and bad decisions weren’t enough, he introduces a rather stock villain in the form of a psycho Vietnam vet, whose function seems to be to goose the plot along to its semi-tragic conclusion. There’s also a racially charged subplot that begins in California when some ominous “spade cats” show up at the commune, but it’s underdeveloped and eventually dropped. Still, he’s relentless in his following of his naive young rebels as they disastrously up the ante on their retreat from their roots, learning the hard way that you can’t leave home again.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].