Several years ago, I saw Welsa Whitfield perform show tunes and torch songs at a cabaret. She sang arch renditions of sentimental ballads, drawing out the emotion in the songs and mocking it at the same time. Her act didn't really cohere because you can't have it both ways. You can't be ironic and sincerely poignant at the same time.
This same issue - the messy conjoining of irony and sincerity - affects much of T.C. Boyle's fiction. Boyle is probably the most talented of the Boomer-generation fiction writers. He can do novels of epic sweep as well as pointillistic short stories. He's a fiendishly imaginative plotter, a supple stylist, and can assemble big casts of eye-catching characters. And he's laugh- out-loud funny. Boyle is also the most frustrating writer of his generation because he uses all this talent for the ironic take, the quick score, the easy laugh. Capable of being our Dickens or Balzac, the writer who defines his time, he mostly settles for being a deft satirist.
Which brings us to Drop City. The plot is straightforward enough. A group of hippies wear out their welcome in Sonoma County, California. Their leader, the quasi-charismatic Norm, owns some land in Alaska his uncle left to him. The hippie cavalcade moves north, where their goofy communal hedonism smacks up against the harsh realties of life in the Alaskan bush. The counterpoint to the hippies is a young trapper, Sess Harder, and his new wife Pamela. Sess and Pamela befriend the hippies, and the lives of the hippies and the locals mingle with some comic and some tragic results.
There are easy targets here, and Boyle hits them without overly straining himself. He skewers the Love Generation's meretricious idealism, greedy intake of flesh and illegal substances, the chaos of communal egalitarianism. The epiphanies are pretty straightforward too. Star, one of the hippie chicks whose consciousness Boyle drops us into, figures out that sexual liberation is a better deal for the guys than the girls. Her boyfriend, Marco, realizes that pleasure-seeking self-indulgence isn't such a great survival strategy when the larder is low and winter's coming on.
This would have been news around 1971. But Drop City was delivered to us in 2003. If it's history we're dealing with, Boyle might have given us a deeper look at the motives of his patchouli-scented tribe. Beneath the sex, drugs, and rock and roll of that era, there did exist a meaningful critique of the spiritual emptiness of suburban American life. That critique generated a mass movement that put the best and brightest of an entire generation out on the road, searching for something better. Enormous effort went in to developing alternative structures and processes; it wasn't all comic or misguided. Had Boyle given his hippies more depth of motivation, their commune's demise would have been more resonant, or at least more poignant.
But Boyle doesn't do poignant. What we get in Drop City are some funny riffs on hippie pretentiousness, some strong descriptive writing about the Alaskan bush, and a story that's clever enough to keep you turning the pages. Read it, enjoy it, and you'll probably stop thinking about the characters ten minutes after you put it down.
All of Boyle's novels offer at minimum a fun ride. He moves nimbly around the American landscape and has a fine eye for the ridiculous. Budding Prospects deals with a later era of Northern California pot smokers. The Tortilla Curtain, a look at illegal immigrants in Southern California, is almost great, but he just had to drop in his patented hipster irony. A Friend of the Earth is an imaginative ecological dystopia. The Road to Wellville is about nineteenth century utopians who preached truth and salvation through cereal grains instead of lysergic acid diethylamide. World's End won a Pen/Faulkner award.
Boyle is also a deft short story writer. You can catch most of them in TC Boyle Stories. Pay special attention to the story "If the River Was Whiskey." It demonstrates the kind of power Boyle can achieve when he lets a little emotional sincerity seep into a narrative. That particular story is a standard he should hold himself to, instead of squandering precious writerly juices on five finger exercises like Drop City. Here's hoping that Boyle, as he rounds into the final turn of his productive career, will use his immense talent to rise to the greatness of which he's capable.
on December 14, 2003
I was not familiar with T.C. Boyle, and therefore had never ready anything he had written. I chose this book because I was a young woman during the 70's, and was very much a part of the hippie movement in California. I hoped this book would be a bit of a walk down memory lane. How delighted I was to find it was so much more. In the first part of the book, the members of the "California" Drop City so accurately represented people I knew. Idealism overrode reality, fueled by a drug-induced sense of invincibility. But the real impact of this book hits when the Drop City members move to Alaska, with their naive belief that living in the untamed Alaskan wilds would be the ultimate adventure. But they found that the "free love" and "living off the fat of the land" philosophy did not work in the harsh Alaskan winter. Contrasted with this loopy group of people are Seth and Pamela, Alaskan natives, who represent the salt of the earth folks, who's contact with the Drop City inhabitants clearly demonstrates the clash of cultures between good intentioned idealism and harsh reality. All the characters in this book are finely etched. The transition from carefree love children to frightened, unprepared hostages of the Alaskan wilds, is at once predictable and heartbreaking. Several of the Drop City members defect: the original founder takes his allegedly sick girlfriend and bails; Pan becomes a victim of his own materialism and suffers the ultimate consequence. The juxtaposition of the Drop City inhabitants and the lives of native Alaskans Seth and Pamela, is what makes this book so incredibly moving. I found Mr. Boyle's understanding of the 70's insightful and realistic. The plot and characters are not the only strength of this book. Mr. Boyle's writing is both crisp and poetic, interlaced with a biting and acerbic sense of humor. Yes, I definitely recommend this book to anyone, but most specifically those of us who either were, or knew those who were, members of the 70's, and understood how quickly the sense of love and peace could be transformed by reality. The move to Alaska in this book is, is my mind, an allegory of how the harsh realities of life ultimately transformed the idealism of the 70's. The book is well worth reading, no matter where or who you were during that pivotal time.
I've admired Boyle since his debut novel, Water Music, but I admit being let down by most of his later work--the themes are great, but their execution left a bit to be desired. His talent is enormous, his ambition's contagious, his ideas are fertile as ever. But does he have the discipline to make it into the highest ranks, whose eminence I believe he can reach if he toughens up his attitude? He's the boy who likes to act the rebel, the drop-out he once was, but all along he has the makings of the PhD he became. This contrariness still simmers.
As others have noted about Drop City, Boyle's talent shines, but he's capable of much more. I do find that his ironic style has in recent work subsided a bit, giving way to measured compassion in his stories, such as many of those in After the Plague. One of the stories in that collection dealt with a serial test of potential mates in Alaska, which may be the origin of what here is the Sess and Pamela plot.
[...]. His love of boastful fakes and the ensuing macho punchouts continues here as in his other fiction, but it does get tedious even if he's good at it. I have taught his story "Greasy Lake" to college students, and much as I enjoy his bravura narrative in small doses, it can become "testiduneous"(to use a word from GL I found again in DC) over the long haul.
The two brawling contingents, hippie "grasshoppers" and sourdough "ants," do not even meet until the 280's in pagination. Lots of exposition precedes, often the most interesting feature of Boyle's writing being the details: how a commune tries to feed the folks, how you trap wolves, what a dark winter feels like in Alaska, how hippies need foodstamps and welfare to "live off the land." If you let your eye fall upon individual paragraphs, you'll find nearly invariably well-crafted, energetic, restless prose, which itches to leap off the page free of cliche, full of fresh metaphors and clever observations. Problem is, the book's structure flits from character to character in its indirect narration, and the omniscient voice of the controlling speaker filters only sporadically through a cast of sometimes insufficiently differentiated people whom you find not enough empathy for.
Sess and Pamela and Marco earn the author and thus the reader's sympathy, but Boyle's much better at male than female "consciousness." So, after a few hundred pages of calculatedly witty insights, the reader may well weary of being so much inside other people's heads without a whole lot of dialogue or relief from the omnipresent buzz of inner monologue. It's a pattern common to much of Boyle's ouevre, where his strength of commentary and his weakness of sneering coalesce.
I'm as pessimistic as the next faux-misanthrope, but while Boyle has progressed in his ability to care for his fictional humans despite our real clumsiness and hormones and ideals and hypocrisies, this novel fails ultimately to live up to its promise. I'm glad I read it, having learned a lot about the "how-to" issue of the time and places, and I wish Boyle well as he continues to improve. If he was a rookie, this'd be a remarkable season. Two decades on, this veteran still has to fulfill his potential with a bases-loaded home run. He can do it, but he has not yet. Here, form meets content, as the communal dream fades and the issue of survival, headhunters vs. basket-weavers as one character muses, comes to another inevitable Boyle smash-up.
By the way, the author's a true gentleman; I met him at a booksigning when Water Music came out--he and I the only ones there!--and his biker mien belies a much gentler soul. See "Greasy Lake" for this/my/his authorial fallacy:)
on June 2, 2003
T.C. Boyle is one of the most technically gifted writers in America, as the present volume bears witness to. His descriptions, characterizations, and flights of lyricism are almost without peer.
But Drop City is a quickly tedious and predictable book that's been written many times--by Denis Johnson (*Already Dead*), for instance. Boyle seems self-consciously smug in his own brazen mediocrity at times, going for adolescent gross-outs and tired narrative scenerios.
Drop City is, most of all, a book about the waste and decay and lassitude of a certain segment of the author's generation. If that "does it" for you, read my 2 stars as 5. But the arrested emotional development of the novel's characters, so clearly described, seems to be the end in itself here--more than any other American author I've read, Boyle seems to take a perverse glee in demonstrating his virtuosity and then not going any further. I used to think he just wasn't writing up to his potential. But maybe he is.
on February 5, 2004
T.C. Boyle comes through once again with a complex tale, full of insight, twists and turns, great writing, and overall satisfaction. The guy hasn't written a bad thing yet and my only complaint is that he hasn't turned out more jewels like this one. But then, I suppose he's into quality, not quantity. Suffice it to say that I'm a major Boyle fan and this is my favorite so far.
Also recommended: Even Cowgirls get the Blues by Robbins and Bark of the Dogwood by McCrae
on October 13, 2007
Since I grew up with hippie parents I am always on the lookout for insight into the sixties-- a moment in history that had a profound impact on my family. With its wealth of characters and imaginative scenarios, this book could have been a rich opportunity to delve deeper. But I didn't discover anything fresh here. Instead I was frustrated by what felt like the exploitation of mean-spirited cliches. True, the writing has an insider vibe-- the cultural details are right. But Boyle seems prejudiced by a cynicism he never really cops to and his tale is too prone to sensationalism to do justice to the theme.
The hippie children in the book, "Che and Sunshine" are one-dimensional throw-aways and their mother is deplorable. Not at all typical of the hippie mothers I knew. And I wondered-- why are there only two children in such a large commune?
I will keep looking for insight about the sixties with the help of writers who are themselves in a process of inquiry. This book left me empty handed.
on February 12, 2005
I picked up this book with a certain amount of trepidation, because the sixties has become a favorite time to mock amongst those who are made uncomfortable by earnestness other than their own. But I had read some stories by Boyle and was impressed, and in the bookstore, I flipped to a random page and was struck by the power of his use of metaphor.
There is indeed lots of wonderful writing in this book, and if a novel's power were determined at the sentence level, this would be a great novel. But the plot is murky, the motivations of the characters are unknown, the faithfulness to the time fails miserably, and worst of all, the author has created a large number of characters whom he obviously despises. Over and over while reading this book I was reminded of an episode from the TV show Dragnet, popular at this time, which depicted a fellow who was trying to live according to Tolstoy's philosophical dictates. Joe Friday responded to him in the way that has since been adopted by Fox News commentators--scolding with no response allowed. That's what this book felt like.
There's lots of mockery of people living in communes here. I lived in a commune during this time period, and some of the descriptions were apt, but the author was stuck on the surface of the experience. The dirt and disorganization of communal life were more important to him than the emotion and the experience. You don't care about mess when you are trying to create something completely different from the nuclear family, when you doing something as difficult as sharing money. Speaking of money, Boyle's hippies are dependent on money from a leader with inherited wealth and on welfare and food stamps. This is news to me. I never met anyone from that time who was taking advantage of either of those programs, and while there were many leaders of the radical movement (as opposed to hippies, a separate breed) who were from wealthy families, the fact that they were involved in radicalism meant that their families cut them off from that wealth.
For a historical novel, there are many anachronisms. Some are minor, like mentions of DMT or chadors in what was supposed to be 1970. This immediately made me suspicious of how this author would treat this time period--and also of the efficacy of his editors, who should have spotted mistakes like that. But the biggest anachronism was the absence of the War in Vietnam. Many people, including Boyle, have forgotten how omnipresent the War was during this time. Every night you could see people getting shot on the evening news. You could see photos of people getting burned alive in the magazines. You could see kooks running around with "Bomb Hanoi" buttons on. You could see regular, massive, violent demonstrations against the War. There were even a number of bombings of war-associated buildings. And of course, there was the draft and the deaths, which really brought the War home. But in Boyle's version, the war has almost no effect on the characters. A couple of the men are draft dodgers, but you have no sense at all of why, and when it comes up, like when they are facing the crossing of the Canadian border, the war and the draft feel like annoying historical details rather than what they were--an impetus for action. In this book's world, the war is something unfelt. And that's not how it was at all for anyone at that time, freak or straight.
I felt very frustrated with this book on a number of levels. It's a cheap shot, as another reviewer has mentioned, but I guess that's to be expected. We have yet to come to terms with this time period. However, it also fails as a novel, not ever giving us any reason for why the characters do what they do. For instance, you don't know why Pamela wants to offer herself up as a mailorder bride to a guy living in the Alaskan bush. Her only motivation appears to be that she had fun camping there as a child. Huh? And at the end, the only truly authentic characters seem to be a couple of guys who live by killing fur-bearing animals. This is presented as somehow "true" and "real" in ways that making a living by selling beads and candles is not. When I finished the book, I wondered if the author were drawing a parallel between these hunters and the War. But no, that was way too subtle a reading.
It's a shame to see someone with talent wasting his time on a self-congratulatory screed posing as a novel. I can't say it's surprising, though. Nowadays people lap up self-righteous scolding. It doesn't make for good story-telling, though.
on October 13, 2003
Just finished it and frankly couldn't wait to be done with it. It has some nice descriptions of times and places in the hippie tradition but, the characters were not too memorable. There were too many charcters. Should have just focused on a few of them. They were not compelling either. I couldn't have cared lees if they all froze to death there in Alsaka. Ending needs work too.
on March 5, 2003
Deft, wise, assured, and entertaining, T.C. Boyle's new novel is a sure-fire wintertime treat. The time is 1970. Drop City is Norm Sender's commune outside of Santa Rosa, California. Actually, Drop City is a commune wannabe; at this point it's nothing more than a crash spot for a fluid population of counter culturists who come by, do a lot of drugs, groove on the free love, and wander on down the road when they need a real meal or a serious wash. Over time a core group has formed which includes the 40-ish Norm, Star and Marco. Star is smart even when she's stoned, and Marco is the only guy--pardon me, cat,--who actually does any physical work to improve things at Drop City. "It's all about the chicks," one cat says. Yep, it is up to the women to cook, clean, wash, and offer themselves freely to the men. If any female ever wakes up and realizes that the emperor has no clothes, Drop City will fall apart.
That same summer, Sess Harder is on his way to town to try his luck as one of Pamela's three suitors. She's an Anchorage woman who wants to live in the wilderness and is looking for a husband to do it with. Sess is a trapper with a cabin eight miles upriver from the closest tiny settlement, and he, and the life, are exactly what Pamela wants. She has saved herself for this.
Norm runs into trouble with the county and his ranch just about the same time that he inherits a cabin just downriver from Sess, and Drop City goes on the road to live off the land in northern Alaska. Obviously this is going to be a play-pattern mismatch, and Boyle has set up that both Sess and Marco have terrible tempers and checkered pasts. Both have an enemy. The two capable women, Star and Pamela, have very different beliefs. And winter comes very early in that part of Alaska.
Having set up an intriguing culture clash, Boyle unspools with exquisite tension a story that does not develop as expected, yet everything plays out in a completely plausible fashion. "Drop City" works on many different levels, tickling the mind and satisfying the demanding reader.
on May 25, 2003
Boyle has the most fun here when he forces his California-conditioned hippies to endure the endless winter of the Alaskan wilderness. It's an interesting premise, and occasionally it hits the mark, but it still leaves the reader feeling "so what?", because ultimately these are just a bunch of unlikeable layabouts. His descriptions are uniformly excellent, and one can't help but wonder whether he rather wasted them on the characters here, but Drop City is quite readable in a voyeuristic, zoo-type way.
Better than a lot of counterculture portraits because it has its tongue firmly in its cheek, but unless you really care about selfish pothead pseudo-spiritualists and their helpless struggles you're not going to find the Great American Novel here.