TC Boyle Drop City reviewed by Rick Kleffel

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Drop City

TC Boyle

Viking / Penguin Putnam

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-670-03172-0

Publication Date: 02-24-2003

444 Pages; $25.95

Date Reviewed: 02-11-04

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2004



General Fiction

08-21-06 (interview)

Utopia is a tough act to follow. What's more, it's not usually what it's cracked up to be. When we think of the perfect society, it is inevitably something different from that in which we currently reside. It usually involves less work, more wealth, less responsibility and more freedom. The presumption is that these aspects of life are not mutually exclusive. But the dearth of working utopias in our world suggests that utopia is a lot easier to write about in theory than execute in fact. TC Boyle's latest novel, 'Drop City', visits a working utopia not of the future, but of the past. Set in California and Alaska in the year 1970, Boyle's vision of utopia is not particularly utopian. The grubby and spoiled children of America, given the chance to do exactly what they want to do, spend their time having sex and taking drugs. This naturally leads to conflict. Given this utopian vision, the world of the present seems a lot less surprising. Boyle's vision is centered on his characters, however, and their humanity exhibits power and beauty as well as sordid pettiness.

Drop City is a big chunk of farmland in Northern California, inherited by Norm Sender and inhabited by Sender and a group of drop-outs. Star and Ronnie -- who calls himself Pan -- are émigrés from the East coast, hippies of the first order who drove across the country and ended up in Norm's commune. They are sometimes an item and sometimes not an item. Star is strong-willed and open-hearted. She falls for Marco, a recent arrival to Drop City. But as the numbers in the community swell, the land itself begins to rebel. Sewage becomes a problem that requires hard work to resolve, and hard work isn't part of most of Drop City's residents' vision of utopia. When the situation gets dire, it becomes easier to relocate to a remote part of Alaska than it will be to remedy the havoc wreaked upon the farm and the community.

Boynton Alaska is the sad, last mud hut at the tip of American civilization. Boynton's residents, and those who live outside in homesteads, are able to live off the land only by virtue of back-breaking work. Sess Harder and his wife Pamela have created their own rough piece of heaven in this forbidding environment. They've made friends and enemies along the way. The arrival of Drop City will bring with it an ample supply of both.

Boyle's vision of the times is decidedly un-satiric and unsentimental. There's no editorializing on the excesses of the inhabitants of Drop City, just an icy clear vision of excess, success and rewards reaped by both. In creating a utopian society, the inhabitants of Drop City studiously ignore how dependent they are on the tools and comforts provided by the society they are rejecting. Boyle's perspective on the environment is fascinating and complex. The very people who are trying to live in harmony with the land are quite unaware how thoroughly they are trashing it.

Readers who come to Boyle expecting a broad farce will be disappointed. Boyle's writing and vision is carefully reigned in. But there is lots of humor here. It's just not at the expense of the characters, but rather developed out of the contrast between the reader's perspective and the character's perspective. We know how this all turned out. Communes went the way of the eight-track tape; which, yes, does still have a few aficionados. But his characters are not by any means reigned in, and the huge cast spills out over the pages. It takes a while for them to settle down in the readers' imagination, to acquire form and face. In fact, there are many junctures when the readers will wish that Boyle had gone into greater detail about the adventures of these fascinatingly flawed people. Boyle definitely opts to leave the readers wanting more, not less of the novel.

Boyle's strength in 'Drop City' is his ability to orchestrate a huge cast, and an intricate plot in a very naturalistic fashion. This novel is the written equivalent of intimate cinema. All the characters are allowed to simply be themselves, to their detriment or their betterment. To Boyle's credit, the characters who turn out to be dishonest and despicable are every bit as compelling as those who prove to be worthy of their own utopian ambitions -- and vice versa. Every character in 'Drop City' commands the respect and the interest of the reader.

Boyle's plot is fairly straightforward and still very compelling. He creates two complex casts of characters -- each containing conflict in isolation, and they are isolated, from one another and in general from the world at large. Both would like to disregard the world at large, though both depend on it at the base level of food and fuel. Boyle then literally rolls one huge batch of characters at the other and the pull of the novel is seeing how the chaos that will surely follow plays out.

Our fascination with the 1960's and 1970's may tend to obscure what Boyle achieves with this novel. We're all still very close to that time, so it's difficult to realize that Boyle is writing a historical novel. While Boyle himself clearly lived through these years, he writes about them as if he were merely very, very well informed about them via historical research. It gives 'Drop City' a sense of power and distance, while Boyle's characterizations and descriptive talents lend it the sense of immediacy. 'Drop City' will definitely leave you with an entire and entirely imperfect world in your grasp. Utopia eludes those characters who search for it outside of themselves. As a reader, you may feel that Boyle's novel creates just such a place.