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APRIL 2004

Drop City:
A Not-So-Nostalgic Look Back At The Age of Aquarius

by Jared Friedland

Whether a group of health fanatics in turn-of-the-century Michigan ("The Road To Wellville") or a Scottish explorer searching for the source of the Niger River ("Water Music"), T.C. Boyle has long been fascinated with eccentric characters and exotic locales.

With Drop City, his ninth novel, Boyle chronicles life on a fictional Northern California commune circa 1970. Founded by a Dexedrine-popping trust-fund heir named Norm Sender and home to sixty Hippies with monikers like "Sky Dog" and "Mendocino Bill," the colony operates under the principle of LATWINDO—Land Access To Which Is Denied No One. If that clunky acronym sounds a bit too idealistic to work, to the ears of Star and Ronnie, a young couple living in the "soul-destroying" suburb of Peterskill, New York, it has the beckoning appeal of a Siren Song.

Star and Ronnie drive cross-country to Drop City with hopes of leading "a life of peace and tranquility...of love and meditation and faith in the ordinary—no pretense, no games, no plastic yearning after the almighty dollar." What they quickly learn after arriving is utopian settlements are just as subject to hypocrisy, bigotry and opportunism as the "stultifying suburbs" they left behind. The flip-side of Drop City's "free-love" policy is sexual coercion and disease, the widespread (one is tempted to write "de rigueur") drug-taking among the communards results in a child accidentally drinking LSD-spiked orange juice, and the humanitarian credo, "Land Access To Which Is Denied No One," only serves to attract a multitude of unsavory characters, including a handful of rapists.

Just as Star and Ronnie are about to witness their new home riven apart by internal conflict, Boyle pitchforks us a thousand miles north to Boynton, Alaska, where a thirty-one year old fur trapper named Cecil "Sess" Harder is stationed at a roadside bar, "fortifying" himself with Wild Turkey and beer. Sess is a rugged survivalist, a Jack London-like figure who'd be perfectly content in the wilderness were he not haunted by the memory of an ex-girlfriend who succumbed to cabin fever.

Sess has pinned his hopes of finding someone new to snuggle up with during those long forty-below-zero nights on Pamela, a twenty-seven year old from Anchorage who abandoned her family and friends in the city because she felt "everything they knew, the whole teetering violent war-crazed society, was about to collapse."

What Boyle is trying to do with the two sets of couples is obvious: contrast their notable differences and ironic similarities. But if Sess, Pamela and the other denizens of Boynton, Alaska, have the same fundamental goal as their long haired counterparts in Northern California—to maintain a permanent exodus from mainstream society—that is where all but the most superficial of similarities end. While the groovy "chicks" and "cats" populating Drop City are happy to spend their every waking moment drinking wine, smoking dope and listening to Coltrane, for Pamela, "...if nobody worked and they all just sat around using drugs and having promiscuous sex all day, then who was going to grow the food? And if nobody grew the food, then what would they eat? To her, the answer was obvious: They'd eat your food, and when they were done with that, they'd eat you..."

Alas, though, just as Star and Ronnie come to realize "outside" problems like racism and sexism are alive and well in Drop City, Pamela quickly perceives life in Boynton, Alaska, is not going to be quite the sylvan paradise she'd envisioned. There's the brutal adjustment of living in a twelve-by-twelve cabin with bear-proof shutters. There's the realization "fricassee of muskrat" is not going to be an unusual meal. And there's Sess's ongoing feud with Joe Bosky, a pugnacious ex-marine who's sociopathically envious of their relationship.

Boyle is an expert storyteller, a writer masterfully adept at braiding together parallel plots. As with his acclaimed 1995 novel, The Tortilla Curtain, which cuts back and forth between Southern California Yuppies and illegal Mexican immigrants, Boyle continuously shifts the narrative of Drop City from California's Flower Children to Alaska's frontiersmen, developing in the reader an ever-deepening hunger for the subcultures' eventual clash.

In the case of Drop City, the lead-up to the collision occurs when local authorities in California shut the commune down on charges of inadequate sanitation.  Faced with nowhere to go, colony founder Norm suggests moving to a plot of land he inherited from an elderly uncle in Alaska. There, Norm naively tells his flock, they'll be able to "live like Daniel Boone...like the original Hippies...off the land, man, doing your own thing..."

Needless to say, Norm's expectations fall far short of reality, and the rest of the novel details what happens when the two radically different countercultures finally converge.

As with all his novels and short stories, Boyle's prose in Drop City is hyperkinetic and simile-rich (a man's face is described as "small and distant, receding like a balloon swept up into the sky"; the slant of a porch is likened to "a ship going down on a hard sea"), but unlike the majority of Boyle's earlier works, where characters are at the mercy of the author's darkly satirical wit, with Drop, Boyle keeps his acerbic faculty largely in check.

After three decades of fiction writing, Boyle realizes poking fun at a band of bell-bottom-wearing "chicks" and "cats" on a Northern California commune is far too easy, wisely choosing to instead use his characters and premise to raise sophisticated questions about survivalism, human migration and the American Dream.

"No man is an island," the seventeenth-century English poet John Donne famously wrote; with the affecting and highly-entertaining Drop City, contemporary American author T.C. Boyle appends: "No matter how much he wishes to be."#



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