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Northern Exposure

Illustration by Geoff Grahn

To think that I first read T.C. Boyle's Budding Prospects almost 20 years ago! It hardly seems possible. Back then, Boyle's energetic, simile-intensive prose bubbled with youthful promise and vigor. Now, dozens of books later, the promise more than fulfilled, Boyle is established as a master storyteller and the prose is . . . as simile-intensive and vigorous as ever, bubbling away like a bong in full flow. A similar sense of temporal concentration informs his latest novel, Drop City. On the one hand, it's absolutely within the idiom and outlook of its setting in 1970. It couldn't feel more immediate. On the other hand, it has the distance and perspective of a historical novel.

While authors of longish books often treat their novels like ragas, spending the first 30 or 40 pages tuning up, Boyle goes for the power-chord opening, immersing you in his fictive world from the first page. We're in Drop City, a hippie commune in Northern California where, as far as the straight world is concerned, "everybody's nude and they just ball and do dope all day long." Up close it's a little different. Because a lot of people just ball and do dope all day long, the place is falling apart. The chicks make breakfast — "somebody's idea of oatmeal" — every day. At night "big pots of mush" are served up. But behind every tree and bush there are coils of human crap because no one can be bothered to dig drains. The freedom to do dope and ball all day, what's more, comes to constitute its own kind of bondage, especially for the women. As Star, one of several point-of-view characters, realizes, free love means being coerced into having sex even when you don't want it.

Norm Sender, the nominal owner of the Drop City property, has established the principle of Land Access to Which Is Denied No One. Everyone's welcome, even those who aren't welcome, even — in the argot of the day — the spades, Franklin, Lester and Dewey. They show up in "a Lincoln Continental with fins right off a space ship that could have taken them to Mars and back," bringing with them "all that lubricious menacing supercool spade energy" that is set to test the laid-back idealism of the Drop. They install themselves in their own ghetto, a hut where they get wrecked on cheap wine and dope. One night they, and at least one of the white cats, Sky Dog, rape a young girl who has dropped into Drop City for the weekend. A little later one of the children who lives on the commune nearly drowns after drinking orange juice spiked with acid. All of which — combined with the fact that the ramshackle buildings contravene every civic regulation — means it's only a matter of time before the Droppers get evicted or busted.

Plus there's the little detail that, love and peace notwithstanding, the communards are driving each other nuts. Much of this rancor is generated by Ronnie, a.k.a. Pan, whose rat-assed take on the place is vital to the book's combination of immediacy and historical distance. He's there, right in the midst of things, taking advantage of all the balling and doping opportunities that come his way, but he's also the voice of cynical reason looking back on why so many ventures like this failed — and not just because there were so many people like him onboard. Ronnie can't stand Alfredo, "one of those sour-faced ascetic types, twenty-eight, twenty-nine, Reba's old man. He was always going on about natural childbirth and how Reba had cooked up the afterbirth and everybody shared a piece of it and how Che and Sunshine had been born outside under the moon and stars, but he was an uptight, tight-assed jerk nonetheless, and two days ago Ronnie had gotten into it with him over some very pointed criticism about volunteering to do wash-up or haul trash or dig a new septic field because all these people were clogging up the commune's only two working toilets until they were rivers of shit, and he wouldn't mind would he? Hell, yeah. He minded. He didn't come all the way out here to dig sewers. Jesus Fucking Christ."

The guy who actually digs the sewers is Marco, a new arrival who seduces Star away from Ronnie and sees that, for the commune to survive, they need to get rid of some rotten apples, namely the spades.

Now, by this early point in the novel Boyle has done several very impressive things. He's brought the place so vividly to life you know it like your own home: "a two-story framehouse with a sprawl of outbuildings, no different from what you'd see in Kansas or Missouri or any other place where farmers tilled the earth, except that somebody had painted the trim in Day-Glo orange and the rest a checkerboard pattern of green and pink so that the house wasn't a house anymore but a kind of billboard for the psychedelic revolution." He's assembled a cast of God knows how many characters, all instantly recognizable, even if they make only a cameo appearance. From this stoned crucible emerge huge themes, among them those hardy American perennials, the search for utopia and, even more importantly, race. The commune may have set itself up in opposition to straight America, but the divisions threatening it are those lurking within the country at large. And Boyle has done all this, in a largely comic vein, in, like, 30 pages. Wow! Everything is coming to a head. Marco leads a delegation to confront Lester, who points out that Dewey "was dug in at Khe Sanh for something like eight fucking months and he can kick your white ass from here to Detroit and back."

It's an amazing, electrifying scene — but nothing comes of it. The spades get kicked out, but they don't leave. The commune is split, but when, after a glorious, acid-crazed accident, Norm decides to up and relocate in Alaska of all places, Lester and Franklin go along too. This sets the pattern for the rest of the book: a dramatic buildup of symbolic forces that results in a series of brilliantly choreographed set pieces that remain curiously independent of each other. (As the Drop City crew make their way up to Alaska, for example, they are confronted by a bunch of rednecks. It all ends in a fight. Then the rednecks drive off and are never heard from again. In a way Boyle's depiction of the West is very much like a Western in that things often end in a fight — but these fights, like the barroom punch-ups that leave no one the worse for wear, have very few lasting consequences.)

That this actually makes the novel somewhat static seems counterintuitive, given that the narrative bowls along at such a cracking pace. You barely have time to catch your breath. The next incident follows hard on the heels of the last, just as one metaphor comes tumbling after another. This is what gives Boyle's prose its high-octane buzz. He has a tendency to splurge and binge, to keep throwing logs on the metaphoric fire, burning up verbal fuel for no reason other than the fun of watching it roar — but often the similes and metaphors are dead on. "The black glistening puddle of a record working its way round the turntable" is perfect. So is the fig-green Honda motorcycle that sounds like someone had "attached grenade launchers to the muffler pipes." Boyle can be precisely lyrical too, as when he conveys the end of a wedding reception where the band has been "reduced to a single fiddle sawing away at the melancholy traces of a classical education."

The wedding in question is that of Sess and Pamela Harder, who live out the ideal of self-sufficiency without any illusions: Life in Alaska is a grueling struggle to survive, a struggle made harder by the fact that Sess is locked into a bitter feud with their neighbor, Joe Bosky. Into this unforgiving environment spill the Drop City stoners. Compared with the rugged self-reliance of the Harders, the half-baked Drop City ideal of living off the land is self-deluding. Much comedy results from these two worlds rubbing shoulders in the wilderness like this, a comedy that becomes increasingly desperate as the long summer turns into interminable winter. The splits in both communities are redoubled and reinforced as one part of Drop City teams up with scumbag Bosky, another part with the exasperated but sympathetic Harders. Events move, inevitably, to a violent climax, but by its closing stages the novel has abandoned any plans to gather its diverse strands into a self-generated denouement that will resolve and unite the themes it raucously announced. In this sense, Drop City shares the fate of the place from which it takes its name. Simmering and bubbling without ever coming to the expected Boyle, it is, nevertheless, quite a trip.

T.C. Boyle reads from Drop City at Book Soup Thursday, March 13 at 7:30 p.m.

DROP CITY | By T.C. BOYLE | Viking | 444 pages | $26 hardcover


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