The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 5 May 2004

Drop City

by T. C. Boyle

This is one of the few big "hippie novels" to come out in the past generation or so. It got a lot of attention when it appeared, and was viewed with quite a bit of skepticism. Here, we meet the residents of California commune, Drop City (no relation and almost no resemblance to Drop City, Colorado and perhaps most like Morningstar in California). Star and Pan (Ronnie) are relative newcomers, after dropping out of their lives and driving across country. Marco comes along and lives in a treehouse on the property. The guru/property-owner is Norm Sender, older and a bit wiser, but still idealistic and somewhat cranky. There are about forty residents of Drop City when the novel opens, but these are the ones the book focuses upon. Boyle captures pretty well the conflict between an idealistic, childlike existence and the realities of just getting by in the wider culture, as well as the human conflicts that occur between personalities and egos when thrown together so closely. The book opens almost immediately with some of the well-known contradictions of the counterculture, particularly with respect to sexual politics. Much of the old structure ended up manifesting itself in the counterculture. Free Love seemed to benefit the men most. And in the kitchen, the women remained the providers. The society of the dropouts had its magical moments and it had those who dropped out purely for the attractions of childish irresponsibility. If Boyle has a political point here, this would be it. Race relations also enter the story when Lester and his friends arrive to live in the back house on the property. Ambiguous crimes are committed and Lester confronts the mostly white residents. The outer world crashes in, though, when Sonoma county decides that the funky houses on the property don't meet code. Soon, the entire commune is piled aboard buses and heading for Alaska to live off the land.

Here is where the other half of Boyle's novel opens. We've already met Sess Harder and other denizens living in and around Boynton, Alaska, at the very end of the road a hundred sixty miles out of Fairbanks. These people really do live off the land, but don't hold to any hippie ideals. So, when Drop City arrives, predictable conflicts arise. However, Boyle treats these with intelligence and sensitivity as well as satire, successfully avoiding heavy parody or too obvious plot twists. Drop City survives, but struggles as a nasty winter sets in.

Perhaps Boyle makes it too easy for Drop City. Perhaps he highlights the conflicts and naivité of the hippies. But I don't think he has a political axe to grind here. He is telling a story with some sensitivity and a taste for drama. We don't know if the commune will survive, or if it was a good idea to start with (or what the idea was to start with). Some things go well, almost too well. Some things go badly, almost too badly. The great hippie novel has yet to be written, but this is still a pretty good book.

[Mail John][To List]

See also:
[Droppers by Mark Matthews]
[Drop City by Peter Rabbit]
[Memories of Drop City by John Curl]

Also by Boyle: [East is East]

[Other books on the 60s & Counterculture]