There are things we do in our lives for the sheer discomfort of them -- to remind us of what we have, and what we require for a happy existence, and what we need to sustain ourselves. We do things like hiking and camping, and mountain climbing, and sailing, and cross-country skiing. And the moment we return home from one of our outdoor adventures, whether we have hiked 10 miles to a remote wilderness camp or grilled ahi tuna next to the car in a state park, we feel at peace. We can peel off the dirty smelly clothes, we can warm the chilled extremities, we can take a long, excruciatingly hot shower and brew up some tea and cuddle up under the covers of a fluffy bed. This is exactly how I felt after reading Drop City.
Those of us who were lucky enough to have been born just behind the "Summer of Love" generation are sick to death of gagging on the regurgitated memories shoved down our throats by those who lived through those seemingly halcyon days. Images of flower children dancing in the park, and poets rallying against the war, and color wheels spinning out oily slicks of psychedelic mush behind some "legendary" guitar hero or raspy-voiced blues mama have been so overplayed as to be comical. Thankfully, T.C. Boyle cuts right to the dark underbelly of what it means to be counter-culture, both in the hippie sense, and in the sense of any men and women who choose to live "off-the-grid" in their own adventurous ways.
Drop City starts out as a tale of a commune with growing pains, a Northern California hippie enclave which is attracting far too many weekend gawkers, freeloaders, and losers who just can't handle their drugs. After a series of mishaps that brings the Man around to pressure the group to abandon their idyllic property, Norm Sender, Papa Bear to the clan, decides to move the whole free-lovin' soap opera up to Alaska. His uncle has bequeathed unto him a cabin in one of the most god-forsaken regions of the Yukon, where the sun shines 24 hours a day in summer, but it's dark and 40 below all winter, and if you're not prepared and you're not skilled, you're in deep moose poop.
They encounter a group of hardened river folk with their own turf wars and rivalries, and as the days grow shorter and colder, their stories grow more and more intertwined and claustrophobic, til you want to jump out of your skin lest Boyle regale you with one more scene of tedium, boredom and danger borne out of the darkest, sub-zero hell that is this particular part of the world. It's a rocking good read, with stunning turns of phrase and characters that ooze from the page with startling ferocity. In Boyle's world, you can run from society, but it will always track you down like a wild pack of starved dogs.
So let those dogs lie. The laundry is done, the woodsmoke smell is out of everything, and the rain beats against the window as I lay here, thanking my lucky stars I'm not out there hunting down my dinner or trying to feed 30 stinky hippies and their misguided dreams.
Drop City by T.C. Boyle
Paperback (512 pp)