A Bohemian Affair

The 1960s was a critical period in American history. It was a period marked by the empowerment of the nation’s denizens. All over the country, denizens were brimming with hope. The rise of political and social activism has inspired several changes. Activism provided the backbone upon which social inequities that have long plagued the nation were examined and eventually challenged. The Civil Rights Movement, for instance, challenged the social and political mores vis-à-vis racial discrimination toward Black Americans. Across the country, Americans fought for equality in housing, voting, and employment privileges mainly extended to white Americans. Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech was a prominent feature of the movement. Women, on the other hand, also took to the streets to fight for equal pay and rights.

Another prominent event that defined the 1960s was the Vietnam War. The United States’ involvement in the war was met with heavy resistance from campuses across the country; universities have become nests for social and political movements. Student protests were seminal in shedding light on antiwar ideas. The increasing political and social consciousness has certainly characterized and defined the period.  The rise of activism was a catalyst in making the voices of the people be heard beyond their echo chambers. While the struggle for change persists in the contemporary, activism has demonstrated that change is possible through collective action.

Meanwhile, a countercultural movement also flourished in the 1960s alongside the campus unrest: the Hippie movement. The student protests and activism, in general, were instrumental in redefining the American experience and in challenging prevailing social mores. On the other hand, the crux of the Hippie movement was the rejection of different facets of mainstream American life, such as consumerism which has become ubiquitous. Originally a youth movement, the hippie movement was the center of Thomas Coraghessan Boyle’s 2003 novel, Drop City. It was the 1970s and the rise of the hippie movement revived the interest in communal living. The interest in communal living reached its apex during the 1960s and lasted until the 1970s. One such commune was the titular Drop City.

“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.”

~ Thomas Coraghessan Boyle, Drop City

Drop City was nestled on a “forty-seven sun-washed acres” property on the banks of the Russian River. This property was inherited by Norm Sender, a trust fund baby who was also the founder of the commune. Norm, like many young dreamers of his era, was swept up in the zeitgeist of the American culture. He was liberal, free-spirited, and idealistic, a firm believer in the idea of “voluntary primitivism” which was one of the pillars of Drop City. As the leader of the commune, he espoused the policy he called Land Access to Which Is Denied No One (LATWIDNO). It has an open door policy and there were no limitations as to who could join the commune. Anyone, regardless of where they came from or of their ethnicity, is welcome to the commune as long as they share the same mind.

At the heart of the story is Star, a young woman whose perspective was one of the drivers of the story; the other two were Marco and Pan, Star’s boyfriend. Inspired by the experiences of her friend who lived in a similar commune in Vermont, she escaped from the claustrophobic grasp of her suburban parents in the Midwest and traveled all the way to California to join the commune. At the start, Drop City represented the tranquil life she was yearning for: “a life of peace and tranquility, of love and meditation and faith in the ordinary, no pretense, no games, no plastic yearning after the almighty dollar.” It was her idea of a utopia and, indeed, her first few weeks at the commune were at a fever pitch. In Drop City, the members of the community were free to do as they please. They can run around the commune naked without the fear of being harassed. They can smoke joints or consume illegal drugs for as long as they can. They can sleep for as long as they can. Drugs, sex, and alcohol were ubiquitous. It was indulgence at its most excessive.

Sure enough, Drop City was the quintessence of a hippie hangout. Mainstream lifestyle and established society were both ditched for a more liberated culture. They were free from the restraints and the prying of mainstream society. In exchange for this freedom, the members of the community must share in the labor that sustains the community. To the idealist, it offered a perfectly spiritual framework of living. However, it didn’t take long for things to unravel. Days of decadence and freedom resulted in the decline of the commune. With no prominent authorial voice, its denizens have become irresponsible. They exploited the lack of discipline. The overflowing supply of alcohol and drugs left many members of the community stuck in a permanent state of detachment. The upkeep of the commune fell in the hands of the few who actually cared for hard work. The was no clear direction and there were no clear plans for sewage, housing, or meals.

As the commune falls deeper into disrepair, it didn’t take long for state officials to intervene and shut down Drop City. They have deemed the commune a health hazard. Left with no other recourse, those who opted to stay with the group decided to travel north, to the remote village of Boynton in the Alaskan interior. Boyton and Alaska were the antitheses of Drop City and California. Drop City was the representation of free love where drugs and alcohol were endemic. The indulgence that permeated Drop City was a stark contrast to the life in Boynton which was pared down to the basics of survivalism. The harsh conditions in Alaska were also a sharp contrast to the sunny conditions in California. Regardless of the conditions, the group of hippies was intent on reestablishing themselves in Boynton. Communes, after all, have started from scratch.

“But the hair. What about the hair and the weird clothes and all that? And the drugs? What does that have to do with getting back to nature? You know what getting back to nature to me is? Just this, living day to day, working hard and taking what the land gives you, and that has nothing to do with face paint or LSD or bell-bottom pants…”

~ Thomas Coraghessan Boyle, Drop City

Boyle did a splendid job in his portrayal of the hippie communities. It is a place where a diverse cast of characters has converged. In this sphere, we simultaneously meet individuals who are spiritual, political, and drifters. They give an interesting complexion to these communities. But because of the decadence that has come to define such communes, ordinary Americans started believing that communes are nests for drug-addled sexually immoral activities. These have both intrigued and repelled the American people. The commune’s goal of establishing a new culture, at the onset at least, was admirable. But just like in any society, the commune was slowly being undermined by different elements, both within and without. The state authorities and their neighbors were among the outside forces. The harsh conditions of the Alaskan interior were another.

Drop City provided an extensive examination of communal living. We read of how within the commune itself, several forces were threatening to weaken the foundations upon which they were built. Oftentimes, we perceive hippies as peace-loving, open-minded, and even tolerant. They provide an alternative to mainstream society. But just like normal society, they are not free from deceit and bigotry, pervasive qualities that often undermine any form of society, even a social experiment such as communes. With a spectrum of characters that were constantly walking in and out into the commune, these human qualities were bound to find their way into Drop City. Boyle zeroed in on other human tendencies that tend to complicate such social experiments.

Further undermining the philosophy of communal living was the prevalence of hypocrisy was subtly prevalent. While the founders of the commune perpetually rejected consumerism and bourgeois morality, the denizens of the commune can free themselves from neither attachment nor jealousy. Ironically, they were channeling the very same ideals that they purported to have rejected. It is these natural human tendencies that contribute to the collapse of even the most well-meaning ones. There was also an imbalance in the distribution of work. Women tended to the domestic tasks such as cleaning, cooking, and keeping things in order. Men, on the other hand, were fixated on the idea of free love. They saw women as sexual objects.

Drop City was supposed to foster cooperation. In the original vision of its founders, it was a community where conflict and self-interest were ditched to foster the common welfare of its members. Its denizens were supposed to think alike and share a single goal. The utopia its founders envisioned it to be was undermined by these different forces. In this aspect, Boyle created Drop City as a microcosm of society as a whole. It cannot survive entirely on its own. A time will arrive when its denizens will require assistance from others, either from their own circles or without. It is constantly being shaped by forces, not within its control.

“Was she afraid? She was. Afraid of nothing and everything, of things that weren’t there and things that shifted and mutated just beyond the range of her vision. She closed her eyes and watched the images play across the dark stage of her eyelids in a careening spastic dance she couldn’t slow or stop.”

~ Thomas Coraghessan Boyle, Drop City

With its length, the novel requires patience and concentration. The earlier chapters particularly were aimless and meandered, mainly because Boyle introduced and built, in alternating chapters, two distinct worlds. The earlier chapters dragged. Moreover, there was a sense of chaos, with every scene seeming to inevitably end in disaster. For the most part, these disasters never quite materialize. Repetitive scenes also characterized the earlier chapters. However, as the story moved forward and as the two worlds started converging midway through, the once aimless story started to take a firmer shape. Boyle, as the primary storyteller, finally was able to corral the story and direct it toward an eventful conclusion.

Beyond Drop City and its denizens, Boyle was splendid in his painting of a vivid and raw portrait of the Alaskan frontier. The wild conditions and the starkly different lifestyle in the countryside were remarkably depicted through the story of newlywed couple Cecil (“Sess”) and Pamela Harder. The group of hippies would encounter them on their way to their new settlement. They also played a seminal role in the hippie group’s adaptation into the wild Alaskan frontier, a place they barely had any iota of. They were not equipped with the proper tools and skills. They were driven by a single goal: in immersing themselves in the hinterlands of the frontier, they are hoping to get closer to nature. Examined through a different lens, Drop City is a story about society’s outliers.

Weaving together all of these wonderful elements was the quality of Boyle’s writing. He did bide his time but, in the end, he was able to conjure a lush narrative that, on the surface, purported to be a pastiche of the hippie culture. Rather, Drop City was a sensible examination of a radical movement and how it helped shape the world of today. The story was also populated with an interesting and, at times, eccentric set of characters. We read of their struggles, hence, their desire to escape to worlds that are remote, as far away as possible from their stressors. Their goal was to improve their own lives, even though, at times, their ideals of improvement were ill-conceived. These are qualities many a reader can relate to.

In his ninth novel, Boyle has written an evocative study of one of the most prominent social and cultural movements in the contemporary. It was an unsentimental exploration of a time forever embedded in the annals of history. Hippie culture remains prevalent in the contemporary and its influences are ubiquitous. The Flower Power movement was vividly captured by Boyle. His portrayal of commune life was splendid and lush. He was also unsparing in his highlighting the concerns that are inherent in such movements while, at the same time, underscoring seminal subjects such as gender roles, the culture of tolerance, and the objectification of women. A finalist for the National Book Award, Drop City is an absorbing literary masterpiece worthy of the accolades it has received.

Rating

81%

Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%) – 
22%
Writing (25%) – 
21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
13%

Like most of the books that I have been reading in the past five years, Drop City and Thomas Coraghessan Boyle is a title and a name I barely had any iota of had I not encountered them in must-read lists. My lack of knowledge about the book and the author did not preclude me from obtaining a copy of the book a couple of years ago; like most of my books, it was left to gather dust on my bookshelf. The book, after all, was listed as one of the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Unfortunately, it took me about three years to finally read it as part of my 2021 Beat the Backlist challenge. One of the things that caught my attention was the book’s cover which featured naked individuals lying on the ground. As unexpected as the cover was the book’s content. Perhaps because of its length and the complexity of the subject being explored, it did take me time to find my footing in the story. Once I was able to establish a consistent reading pace, the story started to make sense. I kind of had an iota of the hippie culture but my knowledge of it was not as extensive; images of flowery vans were the first ones to come to my mind. Boyle provided me not only a better understanding of the lifestyle but also an interesting story and a diverse cast of characters.

It is said that Drop City is one of his subtler works which makes me more curious about his other works. Hopefully, I get the opportunity to read his other novels. He has another novel listed in the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die: World’s End.

Book Specs

Author: Thomas Coraghessan Boyle
Publisher: Viking
Publishing Date: 2003
Number of Pages: 444
Genre: Literary, Historical

Synopsis

It is 1970, and a down-at-the-heels California commune devoted to peace, free love and the simple life has decided to relocate to the last frontier – the unforgiving landscape of interior Alaska – in the ultimate expression of going back to the land. The novel opposes two groups of characters: Sess Harder, his wife, Pamela, and other young Alaskans who are already successfully homesteading in the wilderness, and the brothers and sisters of ‘Drop City,” led by Norm Sender and three idealistic emigres from the east coast, Star, her boyfriend, Marco, and Ronnie. As these two communities collide. Unexpected friendships and dangerous enmities are born as everyone struggles with the bare essentials of life: love, nourishment and a roof over one’s head.

Drop City is not a satire or a nostalgic look at the sixties, though its evocation of the period is presented with a truth and clarity that no other book on that era has achieved. This is a surprising story one that reveals human behavior at its rawest, most tender and most compelling. It is also a rich, allusive and unsentimental look at the ideals of a generation and their impact on today’s radically transformed world. Above all, it is an epic and gripping novel infused with the lyrics and take-no-prisoners storytelling for which T.C. Boyle is justly famous.

About the Author

Thomas Coraghessan Boyle, also known as T. C. Boyle and T. Coraghessan Boyle, was born on December 2, 1948, in Peekskill, New York, U.S., where he also grew up. He received a bachelor of arts degree in English and History from the State University of New York at Potsdam in 1968. In 1974, he received an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He also received a Ph.D. degree in Nineteenth-Century British Literature from the University of Iowa in 1977.

In 1984, Boyle made his literary debut with the publication of his novel, Water Music. However, it was with his third novel, World’s End (1987) that he made his breakthrough. The novel was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Prize for best novel of the year in 1988. His other works include East is East (1990), The Tortilla Curtain (1995), Drop City (2003), and The Harder They Come (2015). His latest novel, Talk to Me, was published in 2021. He is also a prolific short story writer. His works have appeared in nearly every major American publication such as The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire, The Atlantic Monthly, Playboy, The Paris Review, GQ, Antaeus, Granta, and McSweeney’s.

Boyle has also received a score of accolades. In 1999, he was awarded the PEN/Malamud Prize in the short story for his short story collection T.C. Boyle Stories (1998). The Tortilla Curtain won the Prix Médicis Étranger for best foreign novel in France. He has received several O. Henry awards for his short stories. In 1977, he was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and, in 1988, the Guggenheim Fellowship. He has been a member of the English Department at the University of Southern California since 1978, where he was a Distinguished Professor of English.

He currently lives near Santa Barbara with his wife and three children.