Drop City

Drop City cover art

Actually it was a school bus. Doesn't anyone read their Ken Kesey anymore?

Back in the 60’s, they called it “dropping out”; it was a process with three main steps.

Step Number One: the Cosmos would cold-cock you. How that blow was delivered would vary from person to person. Maybe you’d hear a truly original and beautiful piece of music for the first time. Maybe someone would hand you a dog-eared paperback that hit you like a sledgehammer. Maybe you’d ingest some funky chemical that made you see divine beauty in people and things that you’d always thought were ugly as a mud fence. Maybe you’d open the paper and see a naked child with napalm burns all over her body–or open the mailbox and see a draft notice.

Regardless of how it happened, you weren’t the same afterward. You saw the world differently. Suddenly it was all upside-down and backwards.

This led to Step Number Two: you started to question everyone and everything. Nothing was sacred any more. If you were a man, you might be asking: “Why? Why do I have to cut my hair? Why do I have to go to school and get a job? Why do I have to go to war and kill a bunch of people, or die–maybe both?” And if you were a woman, you were asking: “Why? Why do I have to defend my virtue like the gates of the Bastille? Why am I supposed to want a husband and children? Why do I have to wear the pointy little shoes, the bullet bra, and so much eyeliner and hairspray that I look like a cheap plastic Gidget doll?”

It was very rare to hear a really good answer to any of your questions. And after a few too many replies that basically amounted to “That’s just how things are done”, you got fed up. You started saying, “Oh yeah? Well, to hell with it! If that’s the way things are, for no damn reason, then I want no part of it.” Eventually, you just walked away–possibly after giving everyone you had ever known the Finger.

That was Step Number Three. “Dropping out”.

Of course, once you did this, everyone would scream and tear their hair and declare you a coward and a degenerate and a downright Un-American waste of space. The irony, though, is that you were actually being the perfect American. Dropping out is the Great American pass-time. Everyone drops out in America. It doesn’t matter if they’re Mormons, Mennonites, Quakers, Shakers, trappers, flappers or runaway slaves, someone in this country is ALWAYS saying “screw this” and making tracks.

Heck, most of us had to drop out to become Americans in the first place. Our Founding Fathers dropped out of the British Empire. A whole flood of Americans dropped out of the Irish Potato Famine. Americans have dropped out of imperial China, Nazi Europe, and the Soviet Bloc. Even the First Nations had to migrate here from the Asian steppes, once upon a time–and before they took off on that long trek, however many thousands of years ago, I bet they all flipped SOMEONE the bird.

Drop City is a novel by T. Coraghesson Boyle. It’s basically a 444-page rumination on the subject of dropping out, and what comes after. The title refers to a hippie commune in California; the year appears to be 1970 (or thereabouts), and Drop City is the name given both to a parcel of land and the community that inhabits it. In true tribal fashion, there isn’t much distinction between the two.

Accordingly, Drop City is many things: a collection of rickety huts and tents in the bright California sun; a group of thirty-odd drop-outs from all over the country, drawn to the rumor of a place where you can just be FREE; a stationary freakshow where weekend wannabes and gawkers can come to see “real hippies” smoking grass and painting their naked bodies for the tourists; an eyesore, a health hazard, and a den of criminals; a philosophy, a way of life, a dream in the making.

Boyle is addressing the subject of dropping out in two ways. Number one, he’s pointing out the obvious; when you drop out of one world, you eventually have to drop IN to another. What’s more, every world you drop into has its own rules–even if these are just the harsh and inarguable laws of nature. You may walk away from a day job, but there’s always work to be done; a human being needs food and shelter, and when thirty people have to empty their bowels, SOMEONE is going to have to dig a latrine. You may walk away from monogamy and marriage, but men and women still have to relate to each other somehow, and “Free Love” is an empty slogan when a woman wants to say “no”. You may walk away from war, but the obligation to defend yourself and what you believe in will not conveniently disappear.

One of the few conclusions that Boyle seems to have drawn about the Flower Children of this era is that they were, in the main, just that–children. The people of Drop City are happy to run away from their old homes, but few will accept the hard work that goes into building a new one. They’ll gladly seek asylum, but they’re completely incapable of defending their sanctuary from the forces that tear it apart, from the outside AND from within. They are more than willing to abandon the moral restrictions of the old society, but they’re not willing to establish and enforce any new moral restrictions of their own.

Some of the events that Boyle casually tosses into the plot of this novel are unbelievably appalling. At one point, a 15-year-old runaway is raped by three members of the Drop City community while a fourth looks on, too stoned and drunk to stand and too morally bankrupt to say later whether he witnessed a “crime”, per se. In another scene, a mother hands a glass of orange juice laced with LSD to her 3-year-old, with no remark other than, “You want juice? Okay, have your juice–but don’t you come crying to me if you get onto some kind of kid trip like you did last time–remember last time, when you curled up in that cabinet under the sink and wouldn’t come out all day?”

It’s impossible to ever fully sympathize with these commune folk, even our viewpoint characters; every time someone does or says something that might possibly make us like them a little, the author hastens to remind us who we’re dealing with. He’ll be sure to have them think something especially selfish in the next scene, or do something particularly stupid or hypocritical, just to be sure we’re always rolling our eyes with disgust.

This brings us to the second aspect of dropping out that the author is examining: the notion that the hippies were not the only Americans dropping out at the time. Boyle likes to write about quirky iconoclastic characters, but he also likes to write about worlds colliding; in this case, the collision is a strange one. At about the half-way point of the novel, the people of Drop City are driven off their farm in California by the local authorities. The whole kit and kaboodle of them are forced to pick up stakes to find a new place to rebuild their community. Their leader, Norm Sender, packs them all into a refurbished school bus and drives them to Alaska.

This is something we’ve been waiting for throughout the book, of course, because Boyle alternates between the three viewpoint characters on the commune and his two viewpoint characters in Alaska from the beginning. Still, when the Drop City drop-outs finally arrive in the Land of the Midnight Sun and come face to face with some of the other American drop-outs of the same period, the reader is expecting something fairly dramatic to happen…and it doesn’t.

A more passionate novelist might have made this collision between commune commandos and the people of the wild frontier into a really fascinating, powerful train wreck, but TC Boyle is not that kind of guy. Instead of giving us a fiery cataclysm, he has these two worlds hit each other like soap bubbles. They touch, connect briefly, wiggle a little, and then break apart again without any real essential change taking place in either one.

What was most frustrating to me about this novel is that no one in it ever LEARNS anything. No one is a better or wiser human being at the end of the book than they were at the beginning. These characters, vivid and detailed as they are, don’t evolve like real people?they’re more like wind-up toys, cranked up and turned loose to buzz around in circles and bump uselessly into walls (and each other), for 444 pages. They may get dented, or even die…but they’ll never grow, never change their minds, and they’ll sure the hell never REDEEM themselves.

Boyle often does this in his fiction, and it always makes me want to smack him in the head. When I read the last paragraph of this book, I realized that he had never once made a clear statement of any kind. His novel was a series of comments at best. In fact, I really wasn’t sure why he thought he was FINISHED writing, at that particular moment. Did he really believe that he had resolved all the conflicts? Or did he just run out of paper?

It’s a damn good thing that the man is a brilliant prose stylist, or I would be forced to condemn Drop City as a worthless heap of horse hockey. Fortunately, Boyle’s gift for vivid description is so powerful that ANY book he writes is readable, regardless of whether he refuses to deliver on the promise of his plot or themes. His historical fiction is always intense and beautiful, because he can bring a time and place so perfectly alive that you feel you’re right there…whether it’s the lush depths of the Alaskan wilderness or the sere hills of California during a particularly vivid acid trip.

He’s most famous for writing The Road to Wellville, and Drop City is just as rich in its own way. Every time Boyle switches between the passages in California and the passages in Alaska, you feel as if you’re reading a weird posthumous collaboration between Jack London and Jack Kerouac–you’re that completely immersed in the two settings, both as landscapes and as cultures.

In short, this is a good novel which might have been a great novel, if Boyle had written it with a little more passion and purpose. As it is, he leaves us cold; he’s willing to show us the world as it is, but not to go out on a limb and tell us how it should be–something that a great writer is never afraid to do.

3 stars

–written for The Official “Anti-Oprah” Book Club of Joe Bob Briggs

© 2003 Arinn Dembo All Rights Reserved

About Arinn

Author, Game Developer, Anthropologist, Feminist, reformed Supervillainess.
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