This book was a gift from my husband. He knew nothing about the book, but he knows I enjoyed books about Alaska and books about weird cultish groups so he thought I might enjoy Drop City. He was right, yet the book does not hold a place on my list of favorites. I had not read any books by author T.C. Boyle and at first his writing style was off-putting. However, by the end of the first chapter I started to like Boyle’s unique approach.
The book shifts between the different perspectives of many characters, though never in a true first-person fashion. Rather, the omniscient narrator has the power to relate what each character is thinking and feeling. Because many of the characters in Drop City are high all the time, their train of though is often jumbled and can leave the reader feeling rather muddled themselves and I truly believe that is Boyle’s intention.
Drop City is split into three sections. Based entirely in the 1960’s the first part of the book is takes place on a California based commune called Drop City. Star (real name Paulette) and her on and off again boyfriend, Pan (real name Ronnie), have traveled from suburban New Jersey to live a life free of conformity. They join Drop City and become essential members of the commune. They live free from the conventionality of life in the suburbs, but not from the constraints of the commune lifestyle, which involves drug use and incessant sexual activity with a variety of people.
The second section of the book takes place in a small community called Boynton, located 160 miles north of Fairbanks, Alaska. Cecil Harder (aka Sess) is a 33-year-old trapper living a life of virtual solitude in a place called Thirty Mile. He comes to Boynton as infrequently as possible, but has somewhat uncharacteristically signed up for the chance of a lifetime. A woman from Anchorage, blond and beautiful, is looking for a husband and she doesn’t want just any man. Pamela wants to live outside the confines of a normal, comfortable life. She wants the lifestyle of her childhood, when she spent summers deep within the wilds of Alaska living off the land with her family. She is looking for a husband who can provide her with this way of life and she will provide him a wife and workmate. She is auditioning for a husband and Cecil Harder hopes to win the part.
The third part of the book involves the worlds of Drop City and Alaska colliding in a not-so-brilliant fireworks display. Having lost his ranch to back taxes and other violations, the leader of Drop City decides to move the commune to Alaska. His uncle has left him a cabin on the Thirty Mile and it sounds like the ideal place to live a life unfettered by the laws, expectations and limitations of society. Plus, he figures they can grow some good pot in perfect peace and harmony. The commune packs up what they can and sets off in a comical parade; a school bus topped with two goats, an ailing Studebaker, a rusted out Volkswagen bug, a ancient Lincoln and a motorcycle. Not surprisingly the group runs into trouble along the way, but eventually a handful of California hippies conspicuously show up in Boynton and the town will never be the same.
T. C. Boyle hooks the reader through the use of shock and awe. Much of the story is like watching the lead up to a car wreck and the reader just can’t pull her eyes away from the pages no matter how terrible the results may be. There is a feeling of imminent disaster looming around every page and this keeps the reader plugging away at this lengthy novel.
I shuddered often during my reading of Drop City and at times I could smell the pervasive B.O. and marijuana wafting off the citizens of the commune. I could also smell the scent of pine and bear stew cooking in an cast iron pot on Cecil’s antique stove. This is the mark of a good writer. Boyle brings the characters and places in Drop City alive. We see, smell and taste the world in which they live and we feel their pains and struggles.