Tuesday, July 21, 2009

154. Drop City – T. Coraghessan Boyle

History: Drop City was an artists' community that formed in southern Colorado in 1965. Abandoned by the early 1970s, it became known as the first rural "hippie commune". He also seemed to be influenced by the web site Home Sweet Home (http://www.diggers.org/home_free.htm). The book was published in 2003.
Plot: Set in 1970, this commune, also called Drop City, consists of seventy or so hippies headed by 40-something Norm Sender and his "chick," Premstar.
One of the primary protagonists in Drop City is Star, a young girl from New York state who has driven all the way out to California with her high-school boyfriend, Ronnie -- who calls himself Pan. Star gets increasingly disillusioned with Pan and latches on to the first somewhat sensible guy she meets--Marco. Meanwhile, the rest of the hippies have their ups and downs, usually on a various substance experiencing adventures of one type or another.
A few chapters later, the novel shifts focus to rural Boynton, Alaska, where a different kind of "living off the land" is in practice. Here, a little implausibly, Pamela is checking out a few bachelors because she has decided to go back to the land; After a brief romance, she hooks up with Sess Harder, a self-made man who seems to be just Pamela's type.
Back at Drop City, the paradise that might seem glamorous, but in reality is a lot harsher. Norm runs Drop City according to the principle LATWIDNO -- Land Access to Which is Denied Nobody. This principle predictably invites many freeloaders and troublemakers. What's worse, the California government officials want to close the commune down due to health hazards.
At such time, Norm Sender decides to move his commune to yes, Boynton, Alaska. His uncle, Roy Sender, has left him a cabin up there and the rest they can build. "We're going to take down some trees, because that's the way you do it," Norm explains to Drop City residents, "lumber is free up there, can you dig that, free -- and we're going to build four more cabins and a meeting house and we're going to build right on down to the river because the salmon are running up that river even as we speak and they're running in the millions…We're going to eat the land because it's one big smorgasbord."
Inevitably, as Drop City settles into Alaska, we get to watch the incredulous natives shift around and try to absorb them. As the cruelly harsh Alaskan winter gradually envelops Drop City life becomes a struggle, but not from the Alaskan wilderness. The hippies begin to turn on each other, and the loss o privacy and boredom turns the atmosphere sour. The commune then disintegrates.
Review: "Drop City" is partly a satire of '60s-era communitarian dreams. Boyle is a Dickensian genius at the portrayal of hypocrisy. He zeroes in mercilessly on the human tendencies that complicate this social experiment, even while portraying their simple yearnings with real tenderness and sensitivity. Still, no amount of preaching against the constraints of "bourgeois morality" can free these people from feelings of attachment or jealousy. The invitation to kick back and relax does nothing to encourage construction of a badly needed septic system. And Norm's open-door policy inevitably allows some truly frightening "cats" to wander up to the trough.
This book shows ultimately what sustains or unravels us usually comes from within. Jealousies, anger, fear--these are emotions that dog us down to the most remote places on earth and ultimately tear our carefully constructed worlds apart. You can run, but you can't hide.
Opening Line: “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.”
Closing Line: “He was heading home, riding the runners, breathing easy, a man clothed in fur at the head of a team of dogs in a hard wild place, going home to his wife.”
Quotes: “She drifted in and out of it then, because that was when the joint worked its way to her and she touched her lips to it and tasted her brothers’ and sisters’ communion in the wetness of it and filled her lungs with the dense sweet smoke that was going to knock her headache down and out for the count and fill her every cell and fiber with bliss, the bliss she needed and deserved and wanted because that was what this life was all about, wasn’t it?”
Rating: Excellent.

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