T. C. Boyle has given us a modern western novel in Drop City.
This is very much a frontier tale. One set just 40 years ago in the somewhat still wild west.
The story evolves around a Northern California hippie commune and the last of the pioneers, trappers, and adventurers in Alaska.
It begins with the communards on inherited property near Santa Rosa California. They are, in a sense, and definitely see themselves as, modern pioneers. They are exploring the outer reaches of communal living, free love and the inter world of the psychedelic experience. They are young and see themselves as special, the hipsters, the chosen, and above all the rules of the straight world. They are going to build a better world. Most of them are still in the process of extended adolescent rebellion form their straight parents and the conventional world in which their parents live. They want to get away from all that, from their families. They have found a new family. It even has an "older cat" in his thirties, Norm, who serves as the "Family's" father figure. Norm is the one with the property, the VW micro-bus and a seemingly unlimited amount of money to keep the thing going. But really, as we look back at them and hippie culture through this novel, we see that they are more of the same, very American, very much filled with the notions of special privilege that effect, and infects much of American life. Hippie culture is taken seriously in the novel. Boyle doesn't directly rant, criticize or make fun of them. He just gives them enough rope to do the job themselves.
Much of the story centers around a love triangle in this "free love " world. Here we see that there is a gap between the ideal notion of free love and the all to human jealousies that undermine the ideal. The triangle involves a couple who traveled across the country together and join the commune; Ronnie (Pan) and Paulette (Star). The third is Marco who is a reader, a little bit brighter than the rest and the most sympathetic character in the book.
The commune also has visitors, new members from the ghetto, a couple of young black men from San Francisco. There is a incident involving the black men in a outer building on the land Drop City. This is the first crisis of the book and Ronnie, though innocent is also implicated. There are unresolved racial tensions. The blacks stay in the periphery, literally the back house, and never really become part of the group, they are apart, quite like the larger society. They are in the commune and at the same time not, but follow along. This could be exactly like the history of black in the larger American culture. A part of it, yet apart.
Things go sour in California and they all head to Alaska with dreams and high hopes. In Alaska they are neighbors of a young homesteading couple. This couple is used by Boyle to show the realities of homesteading in the very unforgiving environment of Alaska. We are also introduced to a long standing rivalry with tragedy waiting to happen. The hippies learn the power of the reality of the harsh unforgiving natural world in Alaska.
This is a fine novel. The set and tone of the hippy characters is very correct. They are just right. The dramas are interesting and though one can see the tragic ending, winter in the 60 below zero coming, it is a fun enthralling ride. The novel is sort of Into the Wild and Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test rolled into one. It also shows us the downside of America idealism and the lack of wisdom of youth.
I strongly recommend Drop City. A very enjoyable ,thought provoking and entertaining read. T C Boyle has a very smooth prose style, that just carries the reader along like a canoe trip downstream on the river.