Set in the 1970s against the very different, yet similar counterculture backdrops of Alaska and California and the eclectic group of hippies who gravitate to them in an attempt to find themselves, “Drop City“ is a sublime work of storytelling, the kind that can make you almost giddy with the way it engages and entertains.
The last book that caught me up in such a way was Dave Eggers independently published tome, “You Shall Know Our Velocity,“ which was so daring and out-of-the-box that it actually began on the jacket cover and continued on from there, bypassing the usual credits and cover pages one wades through before beginning the story. “Drop City“ actually has quite a bit in common with “Velocity,“ not the least of which is the immediate impact it has on the reader. Within paragraphs, you know youre in for a treat, and that setting this one down anytime in the foreseeable future will be a challenge.
This is the ninth book from Boyle, who teaches creative writing at the University of Southern California, and regularly contributes short stories to the likes of The New Yorker, Esquire, and Playboy. His 1987 novel, “World‘s End,“ was the recipient of the PEN/Faulkner Award, and “The Tortilla Curtain“ won the Prix Medici Etranger for best novel published in France by a foreign writer in 1997.
There is no doubt that this is his finest work to date, and the reviews have deservedly been nothing short of glowing. This wise, accomplished book manages to surprise at nearly every turn, constructing an un-romanticized portrait of a generation whose ideals were out of sync even within their own time period, but significant enough to provide a lasting impact here in the new millennium.
Its heart is in Boyles incredibly rich storytelling, which is funny, textured, and so in-the-moment that he can make the events of 35 years ago seem like they took place this morning. Evidence of this is in this excerpt from the first chapter where we meet one of the central characters, Star, and become indoctrinated to the commune shes now calling home:
“The morning was a fish in a net, glistening and wriggling at the dead black border of her consciousness, but she‘d never caught a fish in a net or on a hook either, so she couldn‘t really say if or how or why. The morning was a fish in a net. That was what she told herself over and over, making a little chant of it-a mantra-as she decapitated weeds with the guillotine of her hoe, milked the slit-eyed goats and sat down to somebody‘s idea of porridge in the big drafty meeting room, where sixty shimmering communicants sucked at spoons and worked their jaws.
Outside was the California sun, making a statement in the dust and saying something like ten o‘clock or ten-thirty to the outbuildings and the trees. There were voices all around her, laughter, morning pleasantries and animadversions, but she was floating still and just opened up a million-kilowatt smile and took her ceramic bowl with the nuts and seeds and raisins and the dollop of pasty oatmeal afloat in goat‘s milk and drifted through the door and out into the yard to perch on a stump and feel the hot dust invade the spaces between her toes. Eating wasn‘t a private act-nothing was private at Drop City-but there were no dorm mothers here, no social directors or parents or bosses, and for once she felt like doing her own thing. Grooving, right? Wasn‘t that what this was all about? The California sun on your face, no games, no plastic society-just freedom and like minds, brothers and sisters all?
Star -- Paulette Regina Starr, her name and being shrunk down to four essential letters now -- had been at Drop City for something like three weeks. Something like. In truth, she couldn‘t have said exactly how long she‘d been sleeping on a particular mattress in a particular room with a careless warm slew of non-particular people, nor would she have cared to. She wasn‘t counting days or weeks or months-or even years... She‘d come west with a guy from home, Ronnie Sommers, who called himself Pan, and they‘d had some adventures along the way, Star and Pan-like Lewis and Clark, only brighter around the edges. Ronnie stopped for anybody with long hair, and that was universally good, opening up a whole world of places to crash, free food, drugs. They spent one night in Arizona in a teepee with a guy all tanned and lean, his hair tied back under a snakeskin headband, cooking brown rice and cauliflower over an open fire and swallowing peyote buds he‘d gathered himself in the blinding white hills. “Hunters and gatherers,“ he kept saying, “that‘s what we are,“ and every time he said it they all broke up, and then Ronnie rolled a joint and she felt so good she made it with both of them.“
The books title refers to the hippie credo of “Turn on, tune in, drop out.“ Gold-toothed Norm Sender has established Drop City, in Sonoma County, CA, as a haven for anyone interested in drugs, sex, rock and roll, and the general Age of Aquarius. He has built a family whose members include the above-mentioned Star and Pan, and a host of other “longhaired cats and flower-child chicks.“
It all goes well for awhile, until clashes with “the man“ (local law enforcement) over such matters as rape, racism, sewage system mishaps, and indiscretions like a mother letting her toddlers drink LSD-laced juice lead the group to seek solace in Boynton, Alaska, where they believe they can reinvent utopia. Alaska, however, proves to be even more unforgiving of a lackadaisical lifestyle than what they left behind in California. As Norms group collides with a bunch of young Alaskans with slightly more grounded ideals, the stage is set for a series of unexpected events, tensions, discoveries, and relationships.
“Drop City“ is the kind of book you dont want to end, and along the way, youll find yourself savoring and revisiting moment after moment. If you werent a part of this era, Boyle will make you feel as if you had been, and if you were there, this will be a flashback of the most glorious kind. “Drop City“ is a gem, a true literary wonder, and much like its inhabitants, youll be hard pressed to find a reason to want to leave it behind.