Thursday, October 07, 2010

Review: Drop City, by T. C. Boyle

My sister-in-law recommended this one to me a couple months ago, after, as it turns out, a nice spin through the landscape. My wife and I had just spent a few days in Sonoma county, including a nice drive, and later a pleasant paddle, down the Russian River, where a lot of the written action takes place. When I was visiting, I was mentally painting rural Sonoma as an especially interesting collision between the filthy rich and the dirt poor, exhibiting some horrifying little off-of-the-path communities we accidently drove through, and ugly little trailer parks and shabby vacation bungalows with beamers in the drive, that have evidently seen tourism ebb and flow over the years. The tiny urban centers like Guerneville (Norm and Marco might have stopped at the same Safeway that we did, forty years later) somehow cater to both elements, and I found myself wondering how the trends of waste and want have gone over the years, looking at the architecture like a geologist puzzling out rock strata. There was open space along the river, and also some ritzy places where wealthy people live right on it (reminding me a little of tubing down the Farmington back in Connecticut, but with infinitely nicer weather and scenery) . It's full of farms and vineyards, currently booming, but they are not so uniformly wealthy as to speak to a history of cash. It's not, to summarize, at all hard to imagine an experimental commune somewhere in the area. (Communism on the Russian? As if!) The book, much like the area, speaks about different ways of defying the rat race, neither of which much resemble the ways that the (yet another) little river community managed in Jayber Crow, but which may be just as doomed. I think it adds up to a good book pairing.

The other frontier that Boyle finds is along the Yukon river in central Alaska, nearly cut off (at least in 1970) from any aspect of civilization that you can't carry on your back in the summer. There's little doubt which is the harder survival environment, and the hippies make do in California with a lot of extra help, both from the climate and from the readily accessible world. The story proceeds for a while merely exploring parallel points of view: from Star, Pan and Marco in the commune, developing a romantic rivalry and navigating the politics of free love and alleged equality, to the trapper Sess Harder and his unlikely blessing of a want-ad wife, unwillingly escalating a feud with one of the other locals. It runs along for a bit as an interesting contrast, enough to get you to care about the main characters' individual stories, but the commune, facing certain eviction, suddenly decides to cut loose to Norm's uncle's place way up north and the direction is finally made clear. When these worlds start pointing at one another, the tension of seeing how they're going to collide is interesting, and really keeps things moving along. The prose keeps clanging along with a forward momentum too, powering through any dropped metaphor or repeated phrase. It doesn't read badly, it just reads fast, a bon mot here or there, but it is not especially philosophical or contemplative on the line level. That sort of thing works out more in terms of plot, character, and theme.

More prose energy is given up to a loving homage to human function and activity. Boyle gets excited about the interlaced assembly of the human body, back muscles describing a character's attractiveness more than the face. There are pleasures in gardens and in layouts of space, how food items are stacked, what survival goods get nailed to the wall, what garden items grow where, and how a tiny cabin (I'd have thought it'd take longer to scrape, notch, and hoist the logs), treehouse (and longer than a day), or party bus is constructed. No meal goes quite under the radar, the composition of every course deserving of a quick mention. The food is about as gourmet as the prose is, satisfying if not subtle, going so far as to contrast bland, vegetarian hippie mush with wholesomely doctored survivor fare. You will cook a muskrat out there, sure, but you also develop it into a simple and real pleasure, filling the pot with stewed tomatoes and onions. Boyle is in love with digestion too (all of which, as my wife can tell you, I can't disapprove) and he does not neglect how we must deal with food once it gets turned into shit, the attention to which separates the more disparaged hippies ("there was a coil of human waste behind every rock, tree, and knee-high scrap of weed on the property") from the worthwhile members of the commune.

Another thing I liked was the qualified description of roughing it. Even up in Alaska, the natural experience remains irrevocably connected to society's umbilical. It's more true for the California commune, for Drop City South, as they call it. Their existence is not just a gift of the weather, but runs on Norm's (the founder's), inherited personal fortune, and through food stamps and welfare. Everywhere in their subsistence is canned goods and storebought necessities, to say nothing of the drugs. (They'd later make an attempt to propagate weed and--somehow!--homebrew.) Even among the crustiest Alaskans, there's some dependence on rounding out the diet and procuring other staples from local suppliers. Sess's cabin is a three-hour canoe trip from civilization's terminus, which is enough to cut it off for six forty-below moonlit months at a time, but it still keeps him in touch, evidently a requirement for even the craziest of the bush coots. It's nice to have something separating this story from the old conflicts of man vs. the elements, even though the winter looms large. The struggle against nature is more a matter-of-fact issue, and the ability to deal with the unforgiving setting is less a question of man-drama than it is of general character. Can you hole up in a single room for six months when it's hitting 60 below and the sun winks out for 24-hour stretches? Do you have what it takes to plan during the warm season and set aside for the winter? It's more about the psychological fortitude of modern people than raw primitive strength or lunatic stoicism.

And if it sounds like there's some preachiness creeping in, there is. The hippies are treated as object lessons from the get-go. They're the bad version of the experiment, the how-not-to, and it ain't so much the drugs and sex as the shirking of responsibility, the unseriousness. (It's worth noting that the residents of Drop City are given from the start as the better breed of hippie, who've tried to do something a little deeper than just pursue free love at the male member's convenience.) I think he approves of the fun to an extent, but even there, the heroes of that community are the ones with heads on their shoulders. They are the subgroup that is more inclined to conventional modes decency: to monogamy, to only moderate indulgence, and you know, who are good enough to stand up to rapists. When they got up north, I kept waiting for the inevitable winter's attrition to weed out the characters that Boyle has loudly telegraphed as unfit.

And when winter does finally arrive, it wasn't like I expected. Sess's nemesis is by all appearances an asshole, almost rising to a sort of under-characterized evil presence. (He hides behind mirror shades, and three of his four speaking lines consist of "fuck you." And yeah, he makes a living heartlessly running booze to the local Indians, who I guess are less entitled to experiment with it than suburban American kids, but if you can take a step back, the sides we're led to pick don't make a hell of a lot of sense. It started when Bosky actually did the right thing and evacuated Sess's former girlfriend when she desperately wanted out—no fault of Sess's—when she couldn't take the winter and wrote an SOS in the snow for passing planes.) As the summer finally starts to close, the characters start to peel off into camps like something out of The Stand, drifting either to the forces of the technological but soulless evil or to the simple but true good folks. The point-of-view character Pan, undisguised as a shiftless jerk, flirts briefly with a redemption (his role as meat-gatherer signified laziness in California, but was useful in Alaska) but loses, and defects. I don't know how well the story and the theme were ultimately served by straying so far from anecdote to tempt allegory, but it did develop into an unexpected angle, and it gave us the means for a suitable close.

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