Ever since civilization first formed, I'd bet there were folks intent on dropping out of it. We know about the monks of the Middle Ages, the hermits of Chinese poetry and, of course, the hippies of the 1960s. In his new novel, T.C. Boyle traces the fate of Drop City, a hippie enclave in California. Just as we're getting to know its residents, they get a major bummer laid on them. Soon to be evicted by cops, their guru, Norm, hatches a plan: Why not move the whole crazy experiment up to his uncle's abandoned cabin? There's a catch: That cabin is in Alaska.
What better way could there be to expose the silly premise of a hippie commune than by dropping it in the middle of Alaska? That's a simple enough interpretation of what Boyle has done, but I think it's too simple. True, their live-for-the-moment ethic cannot last in a place where almost every moment needs to be spent preparing for winter. But Boyle does not judge his characters. He might even be sympathetic with the notion of communal living -- but with only the caveat that it matters who you commune up with. Hippie Marco takes to the Alaskan life, learning from local back-to-the-earther Sess Harder -- a dropout, too, but no hippie. Of all Drop City's residents, Marco and his girlfriend, Star, seem likely to stay, perhaps to form a hybrid commune with Sess and his wife, Pamela. In so unforgiving a place, free love just doesn't work: Pamela, Star, Sess and Marco will survive because they chose their mates wisely.
Boyle's got great writing chops, but his prose is too frilly for my tastes. His eye for detail, however, is impeccable. Still, the novel ends too abruptly, and there are storylines that just trail off. And while his insights into human nature are illuminating, these hippies just aren't that interesting. I also hoped this book would be funnier -- his second novel, 1984's Budding Prospects, is one of the funniest books I've ever read.
In the end, we find that hippie communes were not self-sustaining utopias. Without a supermarket within 10 miles, Drop City is doomed. And there's no doubt that most of Drop City will flee Alaska once the pack ice breaks up, yet Boyle chooses not to give us that scene. Instead, we're left with the gang blissed out on the bank of the Yukon River on Christmas Eve, heads cocked back as they take in the Northern Lights. With a spectacular moment like that at the end of the rainbow, who's to say Drop City's long, strange trip wasn't worthwhile?