by T.C. Boyle
Publisher: Viking Press
Pub. Date: February 2003
Free love. Living off the bounty of nature. Smile on your brother, and peace for all. These are the some of the images brought to mind when we think of the denizens of The Summer of Love: the merry, flamboyant, free-wheeling, easy-going hippies. Popular culture has taught us that the hippies achieved many of the utopian goals of togetherness and brotherhood they preached, even if only for a short time.
"Drop City" scours the shine off these images, and probes deeper into the inner workings of the culture and its inhabitants.
Boyle's eloquent narrative style stitches itself in and out of the perceptions, thoughts, and emotions of his cast, developing a tense and realistic storyline. Departing from the myths and legends of the time, Boyle vividly depicts the external and internal conflicts that arise from the culture shock of "dropping out", choosing the lifestyle of a California hippie commune.
Taking first the inner conflicts experienced by individuals departing from fairly ordinary lives to live within the idyllic commune, followed by conflicts between various interpretations of "freedom", and then the inevitable conflict with "The Establishment", Boyle grants us a very practical and objective look at the difficulties inherent in pursuing a dreamlike lifestyle within a world not ready or willing to accommodate it, at the same time demystifying the actualities of commune life in the late '60s.
But true to their dream, the shortsighted commune embarks on a School bus trip toward the last bastion of true freedom in America: the Alaskan frontier. Visions of nature, in all its unspoiled grandeur, and the richness of the untouched streams and forests, fuel their communal delusions all the way to their destination: a cabin some 15 miles by canoe from the closest town, inherited by the hippy guru Norm.
Boyle prepares us for what is to come, giving us a peek into the lifestyle, mindset, and motivations of a genuine Alaskan Frontiersman. He too seeks the freedom from the plastic world, and to live off the bounty of nature. However his practical experience in the harsh wilds, along with some very different views of interpersonal conduct, survival, and freedom itself, foreshadow some of the difficulties that arise when Drop City North is founded just a few miles upstream of his cabin.
Throughout the narrative, Boyle maintains a sort of homogenous stream of descriptive imagery. The characters are made distinct by the nature of their thought processes, while the style and language of his tale make fuzzy the borders between objective and first-person points of view. His well-crafted language and strongly visual descriptions deliver an image that is both modestly poetic, and sharply realistic.
So sprinkle a little reality on your utopia, and give it a read. Perhaps the hippies can learn something by it for the next go-round.