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T.C. Boyle: Drop City


Drop City

Author: T.C. Boyle
Publisher: Viking

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When California hippies meet Alaska survivalists in T.C. Boyle's witty, incisive novel Drop City, the two groups consider each other like alien cultures, as if Abbie Hoffman and Grizzly Adams had accidentally crossed paths and purposes. But from Boyle's wry perspective, they're two sides of the same coin, idealists committed to escaping the material world and living off the unspoiled land, free from the constraints and responsibilities of lawful society. On a river north of Fairbanks, where winter exacts a punishing toll on even the sanest people, the failures of the hippie movement are thrown into sharp relief. Admittedly, hippie-bashing is easy sport, especially for a writer like Boyle, whose ostentatious prose can make hash out of the poor characters in his weakest short stories and novels. But much like Swedish director Lukas Moodysson's 2000 film Together, Drop City dissects commune life with unexpected nuance and humanity, mapping out a complex and ultimately corrupt way of life while keeping a keen eye on the individual members of its dysfunctional family. Opening in 1970, when the hangover of counterculture hedonism is starting to settle, Drop City charts the rapid decline of "Drop City South," a Northern California ranch owned by blissed-out guru Norm Sender, who invites all comers to his haven of peace and free love. Several dozen people live there at a time–some permanent fixtures, others runaways and transients–but a few true believers keep the place operating, while others mooch off the abundant pot, open bodies, and plates of "vegetarian mush." But after a few unsettling incidents (most notably the gang-rape of a 14-year-old visitor) draw police attention, Norm and his fellow revelers pull up stakes and pile into a converted yellow school bus, heading for their new Alaskan paradise. Meanwhile, their future neighbor, 31-year-old Sess Harder, has no illusions about working the traplines and living in a one-room cabin miles from civilization, but he needs a partner to help him get through the stir-crazy winters. He has the good fortune to find a resolute bride through a personal ad, but the establishment of "Drop City North" and a longstanding feud with a crazed ex-Marine threatens to destabilize Sess' quick and happy marriage. Boyle doesn't bring his two worlds together until the back half of Drop City, but the parallels between them are evident much earlier, as both parties attempt to connect to the natural world. Even before their experiment collapses into Lord Of The Flies, the hippies are already cracking because they can't contain the ugly emotions (jealousy over casual and not-so-casual sex, resentments that fester into violence, self-interest over communal need) that make them human. The move to the Alaskan frontier magnifies their problems, which lets Boyle examine the hippie movement with a powerful sense of moral clarity. For the flower children in Drop City, the demands of the simple life counter the counterculture, dictating their own far less flexible ideology.