Saturday, November 12, 2005

Drop City by T.C. Boyle
Viking. $25.95. 444 pages

Tune in, turn on, drop dead; the road to hippie hell is paved with good vibrations. Brown acid and brain damage combine with the darker, violent side of human nature. Blissed-out bacchanalian love- ins and cosmic consciousness teeter into full-totter bad karma and choking-on-your-own-vomit bummerdom. Before you know whether it's tomorrow or just the end of time, the Woodstock nation's freak-flag is at half-mast and you've helter-skeltered into your own private LSD-is-groovy-kill-the-pigs Altamont.

Man, we have got to get back to the garden.

The Northern California commune Drop City -- as chronicled in T.C. Boyle's incisive and savvy and big dumb fun book of unexpected counterculture encounters, free love and new tensions, altered realities and shifting alliances -- may or may not be that Edenic refuge for all who would be stardust and golden in 1970. And certainly, for those to whom it may disconcert -- neighbors, health inspectors and the Sonoma County Sheriff -- its hear-the-colors-see- the-sounds psychedelic-shackled existence as a "summer camp without the counselors" makes for a less-than-heavenly coexistence. Hassles from the Man and a bizarre car accident (stoned hippies, a horse and a Ma and Pa Kettle-ish couple come together on Druid Day, but not in peace and harmony) brings those who have a warrant and who are going to come in. The Drop City dropouts pull up stakes and stalks, and pull up the '60s, too, seemingly, for a sudden move to the outskirts of the unseen backwater Nanook-ville of Boynton, Alaska.

It's "a place that made nowhere sound like a legitimate destination" and it's where the commune's leader and guru, the gold- toothed, out-of-the-norm Norm, has inherited a cabin and some land, aspiring to "persevere in our mission and our philosophy and all the love and truth and the beautiful vibes of Drop City."

Relocation, relocation, relocation! The reborn Norm of the North, who "tended to talk in paragraphs as if he were getting paid by the word," sells the idea for Drop City North to his reluctant followers, pointing up the appeal of a place where there are "no rules, no zoning laws, no county dicks and ordinances," not to mention, in a so-far-away-and-yet-so-close manner, a civilized enough place that anti-government types can still get their government handouts.

It's so far out it just might work. So a rolling blunder revue is set in motion on a colorful and rickety bus Joad-loaded to the hilt (without the kitchen sink, maybe, but only to make room for the goats). And the stage is set for some new and risky challenges for a half-bag bunch of idealistic and naive -- and perhaps less than hardy and resourceful -- "cats" and "chicks" as they make the transition from the lower 48 to the Last-Frontier 49th, with all the climatic and cultural shocks that come with new territorial pissings. For all the talk about living off the land and the environment, little thought is given to what happens when nature turns a cold shoulder and flower power flounders, lying fallow under frozen tundra or mislaid amid drawn-out dawns and endless nights.

Caught up this long, strange, trip are Pan and Star, dropout drug- buddy sweethearts gone mobile, like hippie Gypsies from the East Coast. They may be likened to "Lewis and Clark, only brighter around the edges," but by the time they get to a Phoenix-fiery rebirth of sorts in Drop City, the edges have dimmed enough to mitigate their respective granola-head hippie-dippiness: Pan finally in touch with his inner Ted Nugent, a self-professed hunter- gatherer galore, and essentially a redneck little punk and petty thief; Star with fewer smile-on-your-brother stars in her eyes, yet increasingly insightful and always hopeful.

Hopeful enough that, in the face of Pan's pandemic but largely communally accepted sleeping-bag hopping, she hooks up with Marco, a sensitive, strong and silent type from central casting, early Brando- cool. (To Star's fear that everything is out of control: " `Yeah,' he said, giving her a smile so faint it was barely there. `But isn't that the point?' ") What else does he have? A rose-colored, righteous-dude belief that "this was the world they were making, this was the new age, free and enlightened and without hang-ups, climb every mountain, milk every goat." In conclusion, "everything is groovy."

Tell that to Sess and Pamela Harder, self-sufficient and terminally un-groovy young Alaskan homesteaders (their unorthodox meeting and marriage in the compelling subplot makes for a touching love story), to whom climbing mountains is not strictly a metaphor, and who can breed their own goats to milk, or make them from scratch if they have to. That is, if there is any spare time left between building their cabin home deep in the woods, hunting, trapping, training sled dogs and dealing with a portentous and escalating feud between Sess and local bush pilot Joe Bosky. Not to mention meeting strange newcomers "who wouldn't know a moose from a caribou. Or a hare from a parky squirrel, for that matter": "You aren't hippies, are you?" Sess sputters upon encountering his new up-river neighbors and their broken-down bus. "We're Drop City, is what we are," answers Norm, "avatars of peace, love, and the higher consciousness, come all the way up from California to reclaim my Uncle Roy's place."

It is at this point in the action that the unexpected can, thankfully, be expected as a long-time dyed-in-the-wool populace meets the long-haired tie-dyed potheads. Banish the eye-rolling trepidation that, with a scratch-your-back collective intruding upon a region of rugged scratch-your-own-damn-back individualists, "Drop City" will turn into a fish out of water tale, or constitute a man versus fish out of water theme, or, for that matter, explore man's eternal quest for the perfect lava lamp.

Leave your generalizations and stereotyping at the tent flap or bead-curtain doorway. Drawing upon skills Boyle displayed in some of his best works, "Drop City" contains, and constitutes a culmination of, the high seriousness and low humor of "World's End," the detail-rich social history of "The Road to Wellville" and, especially, the humanity and subtly played characterization at the core of "Riven Rock." In this last individual-centered regard, the new novel refreshingly sees friendships and factions based on personal quirks, affinities and antipathies rather than on mob- think wariness and jockeying for position. So there won't be much of the anticipated and customary ill will or feuding between the heads and the straights.

Not that there's much time, either, for the unanticipated and uncustomary kind of antagonism that does emerge. With winter setting in, survival skills take priority over interpersonal ones, getting put to the test as everyone hunkers down and waits it out. With the hippies in this "new medium to swim through here," there is naturally a lot of anxiety about "everybody crowded into a couple of half-finished cabins with no running water and no toilets and getting on each other's nerves while the snow fell and the ice thickened and the wind came in over the treetops like the end of everything."

Even seasoned Sess Harder, who chose this independent life, who took pride in the fact that "Adversity hardened him, annealed him," has misgivings when "On a moonless January night with the stove so hot the iron glows and the floor so cold you don't want to get out of bed to save your life, you miss just about everything."

Circumstances, however, push adversity up a couple of violent notches when the animosities between Sess Harder and Joe Bosky heat up, and Marco and Pan and other put-upon peaceniks of Drop City find themselves ever more embroiled and embittered, and in the position of ducking for cover, or choosing sides and taking up battle stations to face off with friend turned foe, if indeed they know who is friend and who is foe.

The darker tone, and the you-are-there vividness and immediacy Boyle imbues to the wintry threat and startlingly intense personal confrontations constitute the hallmark of "Drop City." It's not hip, it's not a happening, it's not your mother's Nature -- it is hard-knocks reality, and because "there is no knowledge worth the name that doesn't come from experience," it is an are-you- experienced rude awakening: "They'd been lulled by the sun, by the breath of the river and the scent of the trees and the syrupy warm days that went on forever. But now there was an edge. Now they knew." As Boyle makes convincingly so, to entertaining and evocative effect.

Excerpts from Drop City

Norm bent low to light the joint for Premstar, and Premstar took a hit and Norm watched in a proprietary way as she passed it on to Reba before he straightened up again and looked out over the room. "I'm telling you the bad news first, but remember what the I Ching says -- `Perseverance Furthers' -- and you are all, everyone of you brother and sisters, going to know that the good vibes outweigh the bad and that we will persevere in our mission and our philosophy and all the love and truth and the beautiful vibes of Drop City and everythng we've accomplished here in spite of the fascists beating at the door." Another pause. His voice dropped. "Only we won't be here. Not on this property."
If there was any air left in the room, it was gone now, sucked right out the window. Not here? What was he talking about?

This was a slippery place, wild, unbridled, full of surprises -- and if they hadn't fully appreciated that because they were so wrapped up in themselves, so focused on their hands and feet and the planing of logs and scooping salmon from the river and berries from the hills, then that thing out of the woods had served them notice. This wasn't California. This wasn't Indiana or Texas or New Jersey. They were here in this country and they were going to stick it out, no question about it, and it was beautiful here, paradise almost, but it was a whole lot dicier than any of them could have dreamed in their infancy back in California when there was nothing more to fret over than is there gas in the car and do they have cassava and artichokes down at the supermarket yet.


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