In the early 1970s, T.C. Boyle’s Drop City is a hippie commune: LTWAIDNO (Land To Which Access Is Denied No One.) Everyone is welcome, the heads and the straights, the cats and the chicks, those who want to contribute to commune life (a few of the women, who cook and do the rudiments of cleaning) and those who just want to get high and participate in the free love that’s going around (pretty much everyone else.) There’s Pan, formerly known as Ronnie, underneath whose cool exterior is an unnerving rapaciousness; there’s Star, formerly Paulette, who is just beginning to catch on that free love might be a better deal for some people than for others; and there’s Marco, who hides his solid good-guy characteristics behind his jargon and his hair. Drop City is the perfect place to be to drop off the grid, to get away from the plastic consumerist society for a while, maybe forever.
But trouble arises. A fourteen-year-old-girl is raped, and she’s raped not by regular members of the commune but by new arrivals, aggressive black men. Accusations of racism arise, and law enforcement comes on the scene. A mother allows her toddlers to drink LSD-laced juice. The final straw: Drop City lacks a sewer system, and the place is condemned. The owner of the property, Norm, proposes a migration: he owns land in a remote part of Alaska. Surely this is getting back to nature in a truly radical way. The core members of the commune accompany Norm to the new Drop City, where they meet and befriend Sess Harder, a longtime Alaskan survivor, and Pam, his new bride.
And that’s where I quit reading, about 150 pages into this 300-page book. This is my first novel by T.C. Boyle, though I have read more short stories by him than one person should ever read in a lifetime (years ago, I read his mammoth Stories, which contains about 70 short pieces, and I’ve read more since then.) Although I love his sharp, idiosyncratic, fiendishly imaginative short fiction, I was much less impressed with this novel, even though this was a finalist for the National Book Award.
There’s a lot to satirize about the counterculture movement of the 1960s and ’70s. There’s the chaos of communal egalitarianism — who’s going to confront the rapists? build a sewer? cook the dinner? — not me, man, that’s heavy. There’s the greed for sex and illegal substances. There’s the often-meretricious idealism, the “tourists,” the weekend hippies who go back to their straight jobs during the week. There’s free love, which works out as a rather better deal for the men than the women, and the pervasive sexism (“The proper position for a chick in the Movement is prone.”)
The problem is that Boyle hits all these targets without straining himself unduly. This is irony, this is light satire, but I kept waiting for much more and not getting it. Almost all the characters (except Sess and Pam, the “real” Alaskans, whatever that means) are incredibly annoying. We get to laugh at hippie pretensions, but what else is there? Not all the motivations of the counterculture consisted of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. There was a real critique of a society there, something that put a whole generation on the road, looking for something better. If Boyle had given his characters a little more depth or a little more motivation, I might have connected with them more, understood them even if I didn’t like them or sympathize with them. But there’s no there there, if you know what I mean. And it troubled me, the notion that people who could survive off the land were somehow more authentic than people who couldn’t. The second time that a hippie tried to connect to the land, to resounding failure (this time harvesting mussels at the wrong time of year, so that they were poisonous), I closed the book.
Drop City has been on my list since it came out in 2003. Has anyone read a novel by Boyle that they absolutely loved? I wondered about his recent The Women, and I know World’s End won the Pen/Faulkner Award. Any recommendations? Or should I just stick to his excellent short fiction? (Read this short story if you want a taste for how he can really get under your skin.)