Drop City (abandoned)

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.)

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20 Responses to Drop City (abandoned)

  1. Leeswammes says:

    This is a great review, especially since you didn’t finish the book. I read this a long time ago and don’t remember too much about it. I think I didn’t like the characters too much, either.

    I’m quite a T. C. Boyle fan. Well, I’ve read about 5 or 6 books by him, but never his short stories. I read East is East recently (review on my blog). It was a good book.

    I loved his Tortilla Curtain and Water Music especially.

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you so much for the recommendations! Duly noted, and it’s nice to know you can dislike this one and still enjoy others.

  2. I’ve had this book on my shelf for ages too. I hope that I enjoy it more than you when I finally get to it.

    The only Boyle I’ve read is The Inner Circle, which I found fascinating. It is the story of sex researcher Kinsey (so has a lot of graphic sex in it) but it is worth reading just to see the attitudes to sex 50 years ago.

    • Jenny says:

      I saw the film “Kinsey” and enjoyed it a lot, but wasn’t sure what the Boyle take on it would be. Sounds interesting!

  3. Deb says:

    I failed to finish either this book or THE ROAD TO WELLVILLE and decided that Boyle just isn’t the writer for me and life’s too short. I think what troubled me about DROP CITY was that I never felt engaged with any of the characters–and that everyone was either an opportunist or a victim. Also I really hated that the rape of the teenage girl was merely a device to show most of the characters in a bad light.

    • Jenny says:

      I really hated that about the rape, also. There were no emotional consequences for anyone, including the victim. Ugh. But I can genuinely recommend his short fiction.

  4. Jenny says:

    I didn’t care for the one Boyle novel I tried — The Inner Circle, the one about Kinsey. It was kinda icky. After a certain amount of infidelity I couldn’t take it anymore.

    • Jenny says:

      I truly don’t mind reading about infidelity. In fact, it can be a joy. Some of my favorite books ever are in fact books about infidelity (including, technically, Possession!) But when it’s icky, it’s icky.

  5. JoAnn says:

    I absolutely loved The Tortilla Curtain, and so did my book club. The audio version (read by the author) got rave reviews, too.

  6. I, too, disliked this book, and it is the only Boyle I’ve read, so I have nothing to offer as a comparison. In fact, I apparently have nothing to offer to this comment. Why am I even posting? Good review, though. Thanks.

  7. Judith says:

    I absolutely, positively adored Drop City! Finally, a writer who truly captured the essence of the late 1960s! No one has done it better, and that’s because Boyle lived it. I lived it and applaud the fact that he has made it come alive. A tour de force!

    Talk, Talk is another novel of Boyle’s that stunned me. I was scared throughout, but thought it was marvelous.

    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

    • Jenny says:

      I’m so glad you loved this book. Boyle did of course live through this decade, though he spent it in college, grad school, and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, not in communes. I think this helps give him the detachment he seeks in his tone! Thanks for the recommendation of Talk, Talk — not one I had heard of.

  8. I read The Women when it came out almost two years ago, and it’s sort of soured me on his writing. It was such a good premise, but he didn’t do enough with it. The more interesting parts (to me), like the experience of his Asian apprentice, were tangential to the story. I feel almost petty still being annoyed at him over that novel, but I can’t help it.

    • Jenny says:

      No, I understand. I’ve read more than one book that made me not want to return to a certain author. I’d try his short fiction, if I were you, just to see: short stories are less of an investment, and you might love them. But otherwise, there’s so much out there, there’s no need to persist with someone who annoys you!

  9. Annabel says:

    I have several of his in my TBR piles including Drop City, but strangely have never felt a compelling urge to read one of them yet!

  10. bybee says:

    I really enjoyed The Women and I didn’t expect to. I’m eager to read more of Boyle, but I’ll try something besides Drop City. Maybe The Road to Wellville or The Inner Circle.

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