Midway through Drop City, T.C. Boyle’s down-to-earth look at sex and drugs and the back-to-the-earth movement, there’s a low-key, high-impact moment when cultures collide amid the carnivalesque. Having emigrated to resettle in the Alaskan outback, the Drop City commune kicks back in the parking lot of the bar they’ve just been evicted from for playing Van Morrison’s “Mystic Eyes” far too many times on the jukebox. Sess Harder, a straight-shooting mountain man as skeptical of their success in Alaska as he is intrigued by their enthusiasm and bralessness, hears in their alien soundtrack something as awe-inspiring as the surrounding landscape : “From outside, in the mosquito-hung lot, there came the sound of hippie guitars, more noticeable now in the absence of the jukebox. It was a mournful, contemplative music, each note plied out of a crevice to be held up and viewed from all angles before the next one allowed itself to be dug out and the next after that. . . . The notes fractured and burst like bubbles, bubbles of aluminum, of pewter, hard metallic bubbles made by a machine somewhere in hippie land and bursting through the hippie speakers secreted in the back of the hippie bus.” Sweet and luminous and often lightly mocking, Boyle is here and elsewhere both on the bus and off it, all at the same time.
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 nature—the “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.
“Everybody expected me to satirize and make fun of that period,” says Boyle, who lives outside Santa Barbara and teaches writing at the University of Southern California. “But I don’t want to do the expected. I want to trick, fool, and pleasantly surprise everybody—and myself too. It’s not this over-the-top Brautigan or Vonnegut or Tom Robbins kind of stuff because that’s been done a million times.”
What hasn’t been done a million times in this particular milieu is a novel in which hippie humanity is allowed to evolve out of its context. Once the action moves to Alaska, the minor discomforts of communal life turn into life-threatening hassles when the temperature begins descending to 60 below for the winter. The world begins to close in on those ill-equipped to fend for themselves. A laughably fetid Halloween party, rank with wet clothing and crabs, unplugs the carnival entirely. Some commune members abandon it for Joe Bosky, evil ex-marine and archnemesis of Sess, and battle lines are drawn. Chaos, murderous impulses, and heavy decisions ensue as Ronnie slips over to the dark side.
The sensual physicality Boyle discovered in his cast’s randy flesh will be distilled in his next novel, The Inner Circle, which is set in the 1930s and ’40s. Bemoaning the weeks spent on a “perpetual book tour,” he says his writing has never gone as smoothly as with this half-completed work taking on sex guru Dr. Alfred Kinsey and his cult of fuck buddies.
“I’ve never had so much fun with a book,” Boyle says as his face takes on a look of Pan-like glee. “But it’s been hell on my wife!”