Attempts to write the great American hippie novel are relatively unknown. Like visceral experiences -- sex and drug consumption come to mind -- descriptions of the hippie life lend themselves to hateful or loving cartoonish cliche. Non-hippies, trying to describe the life, are cold and ridiculous anthropologists, similar to one of the characters in this book. Actual or former hippies can be too immersed in the life to give the subject a necessary objective distance, or are perhaps brain damaged enough that their powers of observation and description are permanently skewed, as stated so accurately in the aphorism that, if you remember the '60s, you weren't there.
As it turns out, prankster-punk and literary maverick T.C. Boyle was just the one to do justice to the topic. Boyle has the right combination of counter-culture connection, irreverence, research skill and storytelling and writing ability; hence Drop City works in so many ways.
The hippie "movement" proves a helpful tool in understanding the nature of human desires and interactions. Its ideals were shared by many, while the implementation of those ideals were fraught with contradiction and difficulty. Boyle's book perfectly illustrates this.
Drop City, though satirical, is not a comic novel. It has a few humorous moments, but has more in common with an edgy survival story.
It is 1970. Utopian desires draw many young people to a California commune called Drop City, developed and "run" by an older cultural dropout-cum-father-figure named Norm Sender. "Free Love" is the mantra, but it comes with a constantly increasing price, one through which Boyle amply delves into sexual politics.
The hippie social contract gives rise to a contradiction: One is supposed to do what one wants, but it is a bummer to not do what someone else wants one to do: "Free Love was just the invention of some cat with pimples and terminally bad hair and maybe crossed eyes who couldn't get laid any other way or under any other regime," realizes Star, one of the young women in the commune.
Life in the commune is idyllic enough when we join the story in progress, but as internal and external pressures increase and social entropy builds, we know that change is inevitable. That change comes in the form of an uprooting and relocation to sub-rural Alaska, truly the last frontier, barely populated, its unrefined residents presenting a stark contrast to its new arrivals.
Boyle tells the story in a leisurely fashion that constantly builds tension and suspense; literary minor chords ring throughout. He walks a fine line, his characters almost all types, but not clichs, the main ones fleshed out to the extent that they reveal their humanity over pages. Rarely does Boyle resort to sensationalism or the easy conclusion. With the exception of the mostly evil Joe Bosky, even those who do bad things do them for understandable reasons. The lives are tragic and optimistic at the same time. Drop City would be a morality tale but for its gray conclusions.
The descriptions in the book -- the land and the people and the animals -- are close to perfect. We see and feel them, and more importantly, smell them; rarely has a book been so filled with olfactory observation. However, Boyle is very restrained in his sex and drug scenes, not feeling a need to tie down sensual experiences not really describable. All the appropriate blanks are left for the reader's imagination.
The ending leaves something to be desired; the book just sort of stops, in a fashion appropriate to a short story but not a lengthy novel that has demanded so much commitment from the reader. But, until that point, this is a highly satisfying and gripping read, ultimately using the most unlikely situation to exemplify good old-fashioned American frontier spirit.
-- Michael Salkind