Book Review: Drop City by T. C. Boyle

I bought Drop City months ago but put off reading it until now. For one thing, it’s a long novel, and for another, I didn’t know what to expect. Whenever I have taken up novels having to do with the hippie experience of the late sixties and early seventies, which I lived through, by the way, and feel personally invested in, I have inevitably felt disappointed. For instance Vineland by Thomas Pynchon, is slapstick and ridiculous, while Inherent Vice, by the same author, is depressing and cynical. Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins is a fun read, but it veers into improbable fantasy. The paucity of good novels on this era caused me to write two of my own, The Misadventures of Mama Kitchen and Sunflower, in which I attempted to impart my own vision of what that brief special time means to me.

But back to Drop City. In brief, it tells of a hippie commune in 1970 living on a spot of land in California thanks to the largesse of a hippy patron named Norm Sender. The first section details their lifestyle, replete with free love, drugs, and filth. This opening of the book disturbed me, so much so that I almost tossed it aside and gave up. My problem is with Boyle’s depiction of the individual hippies and the commune in general. I hung out with hippies in the early seventies; in fact, I suppose you could say that I was one. And I never, ever, any place I went in the United States, Europe, and the Indian Subcontinent, came across any group of hippies (or freaks, as they used to like to be called) as filthy, distasteful, self-centered, and lacking in compassion, empathy, and nobility as the hippies described by Boyle in this novel. Especially in the first part, they come across as cartoon characters akin to the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, except less endearing. While spouting freedom and brotherly and sisterly love, they are cynical, selfish, dim-witted, and violent.

What saved the book for me was the second section. Boyle switches the scene to the hinterlands of Alaska, where a solitary trapper named Sess Harder living far off in the wilderness goes to town (a sparse scattering of shacks) to pick up Pamela, his mail order bride. She longs for the simple life in the wild, far away from the confusion of cities. She has promised to visit three different men, and in the end she chooses Sess. Their romance is truly touching, and Boyle’s description of their life in the harsh wilderness of Alaska, though uncompromising, made it sound alluring and even desirable.

Boyle sets up these two situations because he intends to bring them together. The denizens of Drop City, oppressed by the authorities because of legal violations having to do with their living conditions, pile on to a big yellow bus and a motley caravan of other vehicles and head up north to a piece of property owned by Norm’s uncle, which is, of course, just a few miles upriver from the newlyweds Sess and Pamela. They arrive in mid-summer, the short season of continual sunshine, and commence building cabins and frolicking in the wilderness, but most of them are completely unprepared for the harsh living conditions of the far north. This is Boyle’s point, of course: hippies were almost invariably the white children of the privileged, and what worked to bind a commune together in sunny California would not necessarily be adequate to weather the forty-below temperatures and perpetual darkness of an Alaska winter.

As I mentioned, Boyle has a propensity for exaggeration and violence, so this novel is not an easy read. Once I got past the first section, though, and the couple in the wilderness is introduced, and the hippies begin their epic journey north and then attempt to adapt after they arrive, I found myself getting more drawn into the story. I’ll hold off telling you how it all ends, but for me at least the ending is nuanced and satisfactory.

Would I recommend this novel? Yes. Once you manage to get past the beginning it sustains interest. But is it an accurate depiction of the hippie lifestyle? I would say no. In my experience, the hippies I met were more intelligent, discerning, thoughtful, and definitely cleaner than the ones in this novel.

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2 Responses to Book Review: Drop City by T. C. Boyle

  1. Lee McAulay says:

    Nice review. I’ve read a few of Boyle’s books, starting with a Bargain Books copy of Water Music (a historical romp which works really well, and I adore) and The Road To Wellville (worth a look but not as funny as the film version). His modern novels seem pedestrian, as if he’s trying too hard to be someone else – maybe J G Ballard. I haven’t read Drop City but it sounds like a similar setup to The Tortilla Curtain, which was almost a paint-by-numbers story, so I’ll give it a miss. Thanks!
    You must tell us more about the hippie times… (old enough to have known a few in my youth, not old enough to have been one myself).

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