“Drop City” by T.C. Boyle

A group of stoned, free-loving hippies set up a commune in backwoods Alaska -- and discover that Nature is a lot crueler than they dreamed.

Topics: Fiction, Books,

Utopian schemes always end badly, but that never seems to keep people from enlisting in them — or from wanting to read about utopias gone wrong, particularly if they’ve ever been caught up in one. T.C. Boyle’s latest novel, “Drop City,” describes the fate of a Northern California hippie commune that relocates to the backwoods of Alaska, with results that are both foreseeable and not. It also tells the story of what may be an equally idealistic and ill-starred arrangement, a marriage conceived out of impulses that only superficially differ from those driving the “brothers and sisters” of Drop City.

Boyle is a funny writer, a deft handler of the complexities of this ensemble piece — the dozen or so commune members are remarkably distinct — and most gratifying of all, an expert storyteller. He’s also got enough of a tough, acerbic edge to steer him clear of the tedious buffoonery that the scribes of flackdom inevitably call “rollicking.” “Drop City” is partly a satire of ’60s-era communitarian dreams, but it doesn’t let contemporary readers off quite so easily, either. The counterpoint to the daffy, naive carryings-on of Boyle’s hippies (one that still speaks to American yearnings, if SUV ads are any indication) is the life of Sess Harder, a 30-ish fur trapper, a last-of-the-backwoodsmen type, and Pamela, the woman who decides to marry him and share his life along a remote stretch of the Yukon River, because she believes that “everything they knew, the whole teetering violent war-crazed society, was about to collapse.”

In the proto-survivalist thinking of Pamela, “… if nobody worked and they all just sat around using drugs and having promiscuous sex all day, then who was going to grow the food? And if nobody grew the food, then what would they eat? To her, the answer was obvious: They’d eat your food, and when they were done with that, they’d eat you … She was going to live in the bush, and she was going to be one hundred percent self-sufficient. Anything less, to her mind, was a form of suicide.”

The denizens of Drop City, on the other hand, believe the world can be saved by sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and the liberal use of multicolored paint. The irony is that the Harders and the Drop Citizens, back-to-the-landers both, want to bail out of a world that strikes them as alienating and “plastic.” They long, in the words of Drop City’s founder, Norm, to “live like Daniel Boone, live like the original hippies, like our great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers — off the land, man, doing your own thing, no apologies.” That’s what Norm hopes to find in the wilderness outside of Boynton, Alaska, on a plot of land once inhabited by his aged uncle, after Drop City is forced out of its first home by various California officials pettily concerned about the public health impact of a few dozen people living on a property without adequate latrines.

Needless to say, Norm is as oblivious to the realities of Alaska land use regulations as he is to the realities of rural life in the 19th century. He tells his adherents that in the northernmost state they’ll find “no rules, no zoning laws, no taxes, no county dicks and ordinances. You want to build, you build. You want to take down some trees and put up a cabin by the most righteous far-out turned-on little lake in the world, you go right ahead and do it and you don’t have to go groveling for anybody’s permission because there’s no-fucking-body there — do you hear me people? Nobody.” What all of Boyle’s characters will learn by the end of “Drop City” is that wherever you go, there’s always somebody.

In the contingent that follows Norm north are Star, a young woman growing dissatisfied with the role of “chick”; Ronnie (or as he would prefer it, Pan), the spoiled boy-man with whom Star fled her hometown but who is starting to get on her nerves; Marco, the man who wins Star away, a draft-evading drifter with more common sense than most of the commune members; and an assortment of other characters of varying degrees of practicality and goodwill. Norm’s guiding principle in the original Drop City has been LATWIDNO, or “Land Access to Which Is Denied No One.” As might be expected, it attracts more than one unsavory character and freeloader.

“Drop City” takes place in 1970, so some of the bloom is already off the communal rose. When Marco first shows up, he detects that “all but the last lingering residual flecks of brother- and sisterhood had been rinsed out” of the residents’ dutifully welcoming smiles. “Would he contribute, would he stay on and weed the garden, repair the roof and snake out the line from the plugged-up toilets to the half-dug septic field … or would he just work his way through the women, smoke dope and drink cheap wine all day and then show up for meals with a plate in his hand? These were smiles with an edge.” As for the ecstasies of Free Love, one of the commune’s young women wearily describes the sexual bullying of the previous commune she lived in: “Everybody had jobs, like mop the floor, cook the pasta, go out and bring in a paycheck. My job was to fuck. Like a machine. Like a goat.”

But if the Drop City crowd suffers from a variation on the Tragedy of the Commons, the Harders put too much faith in backwoods self-reliance. Sess is tormented by the memory of an old girlfriend who deserted him when the isolating Alaska winter drove her half-mad with cabin fever. Will Pamela be any stronger? Then there’s Joe Bosky, a local troublemaker with whom Sess has been feuding, a quarrel that takes an ugly form in their relatively unpoliced town. “Joe Bosky was what was wrong with the world,” Sess fumes. “Joe Bosky was what people came into the country to escape. And Joe Bosky, hammered, polished and delivered up by the U.S. Marine Corps, was right here at the very end of the very last road in the continental United States, going one on one with the world.”

Joe Bosky and the commune’s less peaceable and more selfish members: these are the irritants in the fantasy of retreat cherished by each “family.” The ferocious Alaskan winter, the ravages of the Yukon’s more dangerous wildlife and the necessary brutality of Sess’ trade: These teach Boyle’s characters that it’s easier to die off the land than to live off it, and even those who live off it must kill to do so. Nature, the novelist reminds us, is red in tooth and claw, and may not be the best pattern for human relations. It’s not just the hippies who learn a thing or two in the establishment of Drop City North, though. As Boyle’s corker of a plot snakes to its conclusion, a single gesture, one that embodies “human mercy in a place that has none to spare,” intimates that the “peace and harmony” Star craves can’t be found in simply retreating back to “the land.” You’ve got to bring along that small spark of humanity to help you make it through the endless nights.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>