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.