Drop City by T. Coraghessan Boyle
The novel starts in a commune called Drop City in Northern California in 1970. Norm Sender has opened his farm to hippies and dropouts who need a place to live outside of what they all see as a valueless society. They look and act like typical hippies—into long hair, free love, acid in the kool aid and hanging breasts. They are also a community that eschews the values of the outside world but has no core values of their own—they profess to hate the plastic society they’ve dropped out of but depend heavily on the commerce around them. They do have goats for milk, but their farming and trapping seem like careless hobbies for people who still depend on a grocery store within easy reach. They believe in free love but allow a young teenager to be sexually brutalized without real consequences. Male and female roles are pretty traditional and women it have less freedom than in the outside world of “expectations”. Drop City is dirty in many senses of the word—they don’t plan sanitation and are finally cited by the state of California for feces all over the place, human, dog, and goat. Living quarters, clothes, their persons are dirty. Their philosophy—if you can call it that—is sham. There are no clear cut goals for the community and no community understanding of what Drop City is all about—except a place to drop out. Norm’s philosophy is to let anyone in.
I remember this period of time and cared about or involved myself in some of its movements—the women’s movement, Civil Rights and to some extent opposition to the War in Vietnam, but critical as I was of what we called “the establishment” in those days, I didn’t feel any attraction to the “flower children” nor have any desire to drop out and live off the land. (From farming states, I’d somehow grown up thinking the point of the farm was to escape it). I also didn’t do drugs—or not more than a few experiments. Because I was asthmatic and had lung problems from childhood pneumonia, I wasn’t into inhaling anything—though I did try. I may be the only one of my generation who never tried any recreational pills, let alone injectible substances. (I’ve always been suspicious of drugs—even the ones doctor’s prescribe.) So I had no prefabricated interest in the subject matter of this novel as I did in The Road to Wellville. That doesn’t mean, however, that I’d be incapable of enjoying the novel. I’ve enjoyed—even loved—many novels whose subject matter was uninteresting or even repulsive to me.
I hated the first half of the novel. I found the community distasteful and the people shallow. Few knew what they were dropping out of—or into either for that matter. Somewhat understandable was a character like Marco, a draft dodger seeking a refuge and seriously willing to learn how to “live off the land”. I hated the women’s willingness to be exploited for housework and sex. I cringed at LSD-laced orange juice for the children—appropriated named, by the way, Sunshine—maybe the most popular Hippie name—and Che. If Boyle’s purpose was to expose the cracks in the community, he did that with energy and verve.
When the state with all its health regulations closes in on Drop City, Norm’s answer is to move the whole community north to Alaska where his uncle left him a cabin—the beginning of a new Drop City. They take off in a bus and a couple of cars for Boynton, Alaska. In the second half of the novel, not only do Drop City residents come up against the necessity to “live off the land” for real, but Boyle creates a community of trappers who are living off the land—and close to the bone—in a countryside that demands some discipline and hard work to survive. At temperatures of 40 degrees below zero, you can’t live in a treehouse nailed together with a few beaten up pieces of plywood.
The Alaskan version of drop outs, Sess and Pamela, were somewhat more admirable than the hippies because more disciplined, but Sess’s escalating feud with Joe Bosky puzzled me. It, of course, provides the denouement of the novel, but always seemed to me extraneous to the themes Boyle had been developing. That underlay of violence in the trapper community contrasted with the “peace and love” philosophy of Drop City, but what it added up to except an explosive ending I couldn’t be sure.
Early on we are introduced to two pivotal characters, Star and Pan, both of whom change significantly as the novel progresses. They came from the same upstate New York town and drove all the way to California together, intending never to return. They are lovers but not committed to each other and at Drop City Star drifts away and hooks up with Marco. Star is the only woman of Drop City that we come to know well. She seems more disciplined and responsible than the rest—taking responsibility for the goats and much of the cooking as well as expressing her outrage at what amounted to the gang rape of the 14-year old girl. Pan is seduced away from the commune once they get to Alaska, partly because he let the community down but also because he admires the violent, hard-drinking trappers, but by the end of the novel, we know he planned to go home at Christmas, having evidently stolen Star’s stash of cash. Star too finds the Alaskan version of living off the land much more attractive than Drop City, makes friends with Pamela and by the end of the novel was also planning to go home—until she discovered her cash gone. Then she muses that everyone probably had exigency plans to drop out of Drop City. Possibly, though, she and Marco—who had apprenticed himself informally to Sess Harter—stayed on in the Alaska bush. They at least have the potential of surviving.
I have to say, though, that amid all my doubts about this novel, I did admire Boyle’s energy and language.