A book written today that’s set in 1970s America — especially a 1970 redolent with the funk of pot smoke and the fug of hippies living in close communal quarters — is never only about 1970. It’s about how we live now, and how those writing now filter history. There are a hundred vantages from which to observe and thus reexperience that crazy-daisy era of beading, balling, and baking hash brownies, from affectionate nostalgia to satiric bitterness to mature rue. But there are very few writers I’d trust with the project, not just because I was there the first time around but also because one writer’s peace-and-love slide show is another reader’s bad flashback.
Filmmaker Lukas Moodysson, who made the marvelous 2001 Swedish hippie-trip drama, ”Together,” is one guy whose time-machine travelogue I trust. T. Coraghessan Boyle is another. Here’s why: The author of ”World’s End,” ”The Road to Wellville,” ”Greasy Lake,” and a shelf-ful of other novels and short stories has demonstrated his talent for the wild ride for more than two decades; he specializes in characters who march to their own drummers; and he writes like a man who knows firsthand what drums sounded like back when you could order them from ”Whole Earth Catalog.”
In his new novel, Drop City, Boyle immerses himself in the kind of circus-of-foibles setting that has become his specialty. Yet the writer, famously appreciated as a satirist who takes every opportunity to stick it to the stickworthy, also demonstrates something new here: His ninth novel expresses a mellowed, big-picture compassion that appreciates bedraggled flower children, consummate poseurs, insecure wannabes, unappeasable squabblers, and intractable American eccentrics for their idealism and vulnerability as well as for their comic possibilities.
The title refers to a commune in Northern California, a place of brotherhood, sisterhood, and lots of free love. (There’s also lots of blobby oatmeal, prepared — with prefeminist docility — by ”chicks” for their ”cats.”) But the communal notion of family-by-choice generates its own blobby stresses. And while the lyrics of Chet Powers that open the book encourage everybody to get together and ”try to love one another right now” (Boyle quotes rock lyrics often, creating a great playlist of period music), the author quickly and indelibly sketches the not-so-together members of this merry band. Chief among them are a newcomer to the commune, the self-named Star (born Paulette Regina Starr); Star’s traveling companion and former beau Ronnie, who also answers to the name Pan; and Star’s new draft-dodger boyfriend, Marco.
While the residents of Drop City are bickering and bed-swapping in paradise, engrossed in their own little hurts, joys, and catastrophes, Boyle establishes a parallel story: He introduces a very different kind of community of iconoclasts living off the grid in socked-in northern Alaska. They’re anti-hippies, really, these blunt, hardy characters who fish, trap, and exult in simple survival. Sess Harder, for example, a fur trapper, lives a hard, lonely life, made softer only recently by the arrival of his new wife, Pamela, but kept precarious by a murderous ongoing feud with another local, Joe Bosky.
Over 250 pages whiz by before the two civilizations meet up. At which point Boyle, who has been indulging in his great passion for describing dramatic landscapes and skewering grandiose pretensions, does something marvelous. He cross-pollinates his two Emersonian populations, the Alaskans and the granolans, by letting the commune decide — well, communally — to make the journey north. ”You can live like Daniel Boone, live like the original hippies, like our great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers — off the land, man, doing your own thing, no apologies. Do you dig what I’m telling you?” one of the group’s more persuasive orators exhorts the group, advocating migration. In fact, the communards have no clue how to grok such a cosmic concept.
It’s the damnedest thing. One minute the author is writing about some dippy dude come to Alaska to scout a location for Drop City North — a kid who ”wore a halo of insects round the crown of thorns that was his greasy unbarbered hair and he looked so helpless he might have been newly hatched from the egg.” The next minute, Boyle is offering a kind of benediction, or maybe an absolution, for all that helplessness, all that naïveté, and all that greasy, unbarbered hair now balding or turned gray. There are a million stories in ”Drop City,” and the way T.C. Boyle tells them, my response is somewhere between ”Wow, man” and ”Amen.”