By Christian Viveros-Fauné
By Miriam Felton-Dansky
By Tom Sellar
By Tom Sellar
By Jessica Dawson
By Tom Sellar
By R. C. Baker
By Tom Sellar
The first half of this novel chronicling the clash of nature and counterculture takes place in California, where naive and idealistic men and women fail to successfully reconcile free love and communal living. It's 1970, and would-be guru Norm Sender has donated the land for an experiment in utopia called "Voluntary Primitivism," essentially an endless party punctuated by meals produced by the "chicks" for the "cats." The commune contains a combination of true believers returning to the land and hedonist hippie punks like Ronnie Sommers, who calls himself Pan, as calculating a character as the author himself might have been at that age and time. So like him, in fact, that Boyle lends him his own birth date and hometown.
Over warm lobster salad at the Royalton, it's not difficult to imagine Boyle himself fluting a flock of innocents into a boisterous bacchanal. Fifty-four going on about 28, with long wispy rust-colored hair and a pagan-orange Vandyke, Boyle looks utterly comfortable in a puer aeternus ensemble of black leather jacket, black skater T-shirt, silver-skull pinkie ring, and a wristful of black plastic bracelets. Since he chronicled his wayward youth as a skag-booting Deadhead turned writing addict in the essay "This Monkey, My Back," it comes as no surprise to hear him compare himself to Ronnie Pan"only less evil."
"Yes, I was in anti-war demonstrations," he says, recalling his misspent youth in Peekskill, New York. "Yes, I was an unregenerate punk, and I didn't give a shit about anything and did a lot of drugs, et cetera, et cetera. For me, it wasn't political; it was more a cultural thing. It was about style and drifting into music, clothes, and clubs. Ronnie's not a philosopher; he's just drifting with it, and that was my experience of the era as well. He's supposed to be committed to going back to the earth, but really he's just there because he can get laid, get high, kill a few animals, and do what he wants."
Boyle says he doesn't approach writing with any agenda other than surprising himself and his readers. But as he notes, the idea of "man as an animal in nature" has been an important part of his nine novels and vanload of short stories. In Tortilla Curtain (1995) a pair of illegal immigrants test their survival skills in a canyon outside a gated California community, and in Friend of the Earth (2000) Boyle describes a future eco-disaster he truly fears. And his first short-story collection was titled Descent of Man (1979).
In Drop City, set about as far in the past as Friend of the Earth lies in the future, the California commune begins to dissolve after a runaway gets raped on the premises. The tension increases when Ronnie's hometown friend and somewhat reluctant free-lover, Star, hooks up with Marco, a draft dodger of higher moral fiber than Ronnie. Forced off its land by the Man, the commune hits the road. Meanwhile, in Alaska, Sess Harder has hooked up with Pamela, a Fairbanks woman convinced the world is on the brink of collapse, who picks him from among three potential husbands. Like the hippies, Pamela wants to "strip it down to basics" and, like Star quoting Lennie in Of Mice and Men, "live off the fatta the lan'."
Boyle found inspiration in such admirable portraits of Alaska as John McPhee's Coming Into the Country and John Haines's The Stars, the Snow, the Fire, as well as a research visit to the "final frontier," where one could still homestead until 1970. Boyle, who spends part of each year writing alone in a cabin located in the Giant Sequoia National Monument, evokes the messy grandeur of naturethe "drunken forest"as easily as he does the artificially altered mental states of his California protagonists. Even the hippie scenes at their most chaotic are imbued with a lyrical realism that might just as easily have reflected the writer's flair for the comic and surreal.