"Boonville" by Robert Mailer Anderson

In this rambunctious novel dedicated to skewering old hippies and the dizzy residents of a small Northern California town, a truant yuppie falls for a restless artist.

By Anthony York
Published February 21, 2002 10:33PM (EST)

"Boonville" is the story of John Gibson, a middle-class Floridian in his late 20s, on the verge of settling down (read: selling out), who uses the death of his eccentric grandmother as an excuse to have an early midlife crisis. He leaves his yuppie girlfriend and suffocating Miami life behind and moves to the small Northern California town of Boonville, into a cabin left to him by his late dope-growing grandmother who he remembers as "always smelling of gin and vaginal infection" and who passed her time making thousands of chainsaw carvings of squirrels.

Though it can be seen as a sort of Gen-X update on the classic American frontier-as-freedom theme, Anderson moves quickly to debunk that simple equation, highlighting the seduction and disappointment of the call to "Go west, young man." By Page 15, Anderson's protagonist has escaped his old life, only to wander aimlessly at the edge of the continent.

"Boonville can be chaotic at times, but out of chaos comes a kind of freedom," says the town's lone police officer. But that kind of freedom feels more stifling than liberating. Anderson's Boonville is inhabited by two types of people -- those who float untethered to society and those who are struggling desperately to get away.

John quickly falls in love with Sarah McKay, the artist daughter of drugged-out hippies; she views the town as her personal emotional prison. If John is Dustin Hoffman in the final scene of "The Graduate," looking around cluelessly after breaking with his old life, Sarah is Al Pacino in "Godfather III." Her continual efforts to flee the town, her homicidal on-again, off-again boyfriend and her codependent mother are thwarted by her own feelings of guilt and responsibility to her community.

Though the book's main characters sometimes feel underdeveloped, the wonderful eccentrics who make up the supporting cast are more than enough reason to keep reading: the Kurtz brothers who entertain the locals by getting sloshed and running toward each other at full speed, butting heads, knocking themselves unconscious in the process; pensive Prairie Sunset, a Mace-wielding abstract potter who speaks of "circulating spirits" and "rising kundalini."

Pynchon fans will immediately notice similarities not only with "Vineland," which takes place in a similar setting and deals with similar themes as "Boonville," but also with "The Crying of Lot 49." But Anderson is more of a romantic, and an optimist, than Pynchon is.

"Boonville" can be milk-through-the-nose funny at times, particularly in the passages Anderson dedicates to skewering hippies. This lashing begins early on -- in the author's note. "Any of the local residents who can read, and do read this novel, and take offense at the descriptions or content, instead of sucker-punching me while I'm in town trying to buy groceries with my wife and son, let me just buy you a drink and we'll call it even," he writes. "As for the hippies in the county who may be upset at the depiction of hippies, I say, 'Tough shit, hippie.' Anyone willing to identify themselves as a hippie here in the 21st century has their head up their ass and gets what they deserve."

Anderson slows things down a bit when he tries late in the book to tie up his plot, but his comic timing and sharp wit keep things moving along. "Boonville" is essentially a study of both character and place, a novel set in a small, sleepy, hippie/redneck town in which everyone runs around at such a frantic pace that they don't really notice their world is stagnating around them.

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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