In the fiction of T. Coraghessan Boyle, all the world’s a Darwinian proving ground and the people merely competitors. Boyle’s novels and short stories repeatedly visit the idea that civilization is still driven by the primitive struggle of the survival of the fittest and that people who think otherwise are likely to become victims of their own naïveté, if not the self-interest of others. The settings of Boyle’s stories are among the most diverse and unusual in modern fiction: a marijuana farm in Northern California, a turn-of-the-century health spa sponsored by cereal magnate John Harvey Kellogg, a colony of eccentric writers on an island off the coast of Georgia, the wild outskirts of an affluent Southern California suburb where a pair of illegal immigrants hope to realize the American Dream. These situations and locales support varied casts of characters who seem to get by miraculously, through luck and casual ignorance, until a challenge to their beliefs reveals how ill-equipped they are to deal with a world suddenly turned savage and unforgiving.
Boyle’s intent is primarily satiric, and he generally strikes a comic note by focusing on characters who resist acknowledging their ineptitude. In Drop City, he presents the mostly amusing trials and tribulations of a group of hippies who have come together to build a community of peace and love outside the boundaries of conformist American society but who have underestimated the challenges this entails.
The title refers to a commune established on a ranch in Sonoma County, California, in the final years of the 1960’s. Drop City is a collective crash pad where dozens of young men and women, mostly single, are trying to live an alternative lifestyle. Its name echoes the mantra of the hippie culture to “tune in, turn on, and drop out.” Drop City’s founder, Norm Sender, is a free spirit who is caught up in the Zeitgeist of American counterculture. He espouses a theory of “Voluntary Primitivism,” which he defines as “Land Access to Which Is Denied No One.” Norm blissfully describes the underlying philosophy of Drop City to a new resident:
You want to come to Drop City, you want to turn on, tune in, drop out and just live there on the land doing your own thing, whether that’s milking the goats or working in the kitchen or the garden or doing repairs or skewering mule deer or just staring at the sky in all your contentment—and I don’t care who you are—you are welcome, hello, everybody.
As Boyle depicts it, Drop City is the quintessential hippie hangout, where people are free to shuck the rules and restraints of society and live off the land, sharing in the work that sustains the community and reaping the benefits of living with like-minded people. In theory, it offers a spiritually fulfilling approach to life that the participants openly embrace. Star, a resident for several months and the person who represents the best potential of the Drop City idyll, has come there inspired by the reminiscences of a friend who had lived in a similar commune in Vermont and who gushes about how “you could live with a group of people who just lit you up day and night, your real appointed mystical brothers and sisters selected out of all the world just for you.”
The reality of Drop City is quite different. The ranch is in a state of dilapidation that reflects the irresponsibility of its residents, many of whom have been drawn to it by the irresistible lure of its lack of discipline. Drugs and alcohol are ubiquitous and have many of the residents living in a permanent state of comically detached oblivion. The work necessary to sustain the community falls on the shoulders of the few who care to work hard. Absent any centralized authority, Drop City is collapsing into a state of benign anarchy, shown most pointedly in the decline of its sanitary facilities. The community is badly in need of a new septic system, and with no one exerting themselves to build it the grounds are becoming fouled with human waste.
Despite the continual talk of fraternity and group interests, Drop City is a haven for the self-interested. The epitome of its most significant problems is, ironically, Star’s boyfriend Ronnie, nicknamed Pan, who hypocritically champions free love primarily when he wants sex from someone other than Star and who (in a joke that runs throughout the novel) constantly tries to satisfy his appetite for meals more exotic than the bland vegetarian fare served by the community.
Worse, Drop City has begun to reflect the bourgeois values it purports to react against. Although all members are supposed to share in the work, the women tend to the cooking, cleaning, and domestic chores. The men, enraptured by notions of free love, treat the women mostly as sex objects. A turning point at Drop City comes when a group of blacks living on the grounds are involved in the rape of a teenage runaway. When criticized and asked to leave, they accuse the other residents of racism.
Consistent with Boyle’s other novels, which refract the central themes of their stories through multiple subplots and characters–World’s End(1987) parallels the experiences of seventeenth and twentieth century descendants of the same family living in the same upstate New York locale; The Road...
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