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Pass the Snowshoes, Brother

T.C. Boyle's Drop City

In the 1960's, hippies wanted to drop out. Not out of school, mind you, but out of society. And so they joined communes where they could leave behind the overbearing, drab world of modern America, fall off the face of the Earth, and end up leading a self-sufficient life of living off the land. Unbeknownst to most hippies, some Americans were already doing just that, and, in fact, had been doing so for years.

Unlike the hippies, though, these other drop outs didn't just dart a few miles up the California coast and drop camp in Marin county. Instead, they kept traveling up that same coast, passed the Canadian border, and continued north until they were right back in America again, albeit now surrounded by the freezing Alaskan tundra. These Alaskans weren't hippies, but they were living the hippie dream -- they were self-sufficient, living off the land, cut off from society, and perfectly independent.

What happens when the hippies meet the Alaskans is the subject of T.C. Boyle's ninth novel, Drop City. The book begins with a vivid description of life in Norm Sender's Marin commune, the titular Drop City, where problems are on the rise and solutions on the decline. Norm seems to be more interested in getting with his latest flirt than leading Drop City out of it's morass. Responsible people like Star, who happens to cook, clean, and tend to the goats, among other chores, are getting just a little tired of having to take up so much of the slack left by their communal brothers and sisters.

Furthermore, Star's beginning to suspect that her traveling companion and on again off again boyfriend is more interested in free love than free thinking. Star's problems are emblematic of Drop City as a whole, where it is increasingly apparent that the entire community is one crisis away from falling apart.

Leaving Drop City's apparently imminent demise, the novel switches gears to Boyntown, Alaska where Sess Harder, the kind of guy who could row a canoe, wrestle a bear, and brew some beer all at the same time, is making the six hour drive to the closest bastion of civilization, Fairbanks, to pick up a potential wife. However, Boyntown boasts more polar bears than women, and Sess will first have to beat out two of his fellow townsmen for the honor of marrying the female from Fairbanks.

The tales of Sess and the hippies are destined to dovetale in delightful, entertaining, and profound fashion. The juxtaposition of the two groups is telling; both have arrived at the same conclusions, but for different reasons and in different ways and ironically even though both want to cut themselves off from society, they up crowding each other. When the two finally do meet, there's a lot at stake, both thematically and dramatically, and Boyle doesn't disappoint.

The lengthy lead-up the fateful meeting between the hippies and the Alaskans is equally compelling as the meeting itself. Even though Boyle spends a significant portion of the book painting the two groups and their surroundings, it is well worth the time. Boyle's characters are richly drawn individuals, and several of them will stick in your mind long after the book is finished.

The detailed descriptions of communal and Alaskan life are so well done it makes me wonder if Boyle has experienced both first hand; how else would he know that it is dangerous to sweat in Alaska because it can induce hypothermia? Not to be forgotten is Boyle's language, so beautiful and imaginative that it will leave you convinced he has exhausted the English language for imagery.

Drop City succeeds both as a story and as an investigation into the concept of freeing oneself from society. Boyle's book discusses why ideals tend to be unrealistic and illustrates the gulf between a desire and its realization. In the end, both discussions heartily endorse experience; perhaps the best thing is to test your convictions before chaining yourself to them. If so, then experience is a good word to pair with Drop City, all the more so because it is a book that you should experience for yourself.

Drop City
by T. Coraghessan Boyle
Viking Press; ISBN: 0670031720
Hardcover: 464 pages (February 2003)

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