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T.C. Boyle's frontier counterculture
BY PETER KEOUGH
By T. Coraghessan Boyle. Viking, 444 pages, $25.95.
If they accomplish nothing else, the demonstrations against a war in Iraq might conjure some of the political and cultural idealism and innocence that haven’t been seen since the last time such protests were widespread. But would that necessarily be a good thing? A bit iffy on the subject are a couple of recent novels. Jay Cantor’s mammoth and lugubrious Great Neck notes the consequences of confronting the establishment in order to change it. T. Coraghessan Boyle’s blustery, bumptious, and entertaining Drop City confronts the cost of dropping out.
Things deteriorate fast in the post-Altamont commune of Boyle’s title. Draft-dodging drifter Marco barely has time to settle into his tree house when Lester and Franklin, a pair of " spades " in the back house (no one will accuse Boyle of being politically correct), incite the feral Sky Dog and some other riff-raff into raping a minor. Meanwhile, the commune’s sanitation system has gone to pot and the woods are filling up with excrement — how symbolic is that? Factions break out and a primitive power struggle develops — as one communard, stating the obvious, puts it, " it’s like Lord of the Flies out there, man. " Neither do matters improve on Druid Night: the acid freak-out celebrating the solstice is marked by gruesome accidents and missing minors. " They didn’t want to save children, " the narrator scolds, " they wanted to be children. "
So it’s almost a blessing when bulldozers from the sheriff’s department close in to level the place for its substandard living conditions. But Norm Sender, gray-bearded guru and founder of Drop City, has a plan. Alaska — they’ll relocate their utopia to the Far North, on land by the Thirtymile River that Norm’s old coot uncle has left him. Most everybody is dubious, but being losers, they have few options. As for Marco, if it weren’t for dreamy hippie chick Star, a naive refugee like her feckless sometime boyfriend Pan, he’d be back on the road.
How did any counterculture get started with screw-ups like these? Self-involved, pretentious, hypocritical, petty, inept — and those are the sympathetic ones. They also tend to be clichés. Contrast them with tough frontiersmen like Sess Harder — and Boyle is more than happy to do so. The novel takes on new vigor, a Hemingwayesque economy and Faulknerian depth, when it switches to that leathery trapper, outcast, and binge drinker who dwells on the fringes of the Arctic Circle in Boynton, Alaska, just a bend or two down the river from the eventual location of Drop City North.
Tough as he is, though, Sess needs a woman, and in a scenario that seems an elaboration of " Termination Dust " (from Boyle’s latest short-story collection, After the Plague), he competes with other tundra rats for the hand of fair Pamela, an Anchorage city woman who like their new freak neighbors, like Sess himself, wants to flee the " plastic " world of getting and spending for the lost Eden of nature.
Nature, of course, is red in tooth and claw, and from the very beginning the mealy-mouthed vegetarians of Drop City have a hard time adjusting to the idea that they’re not going to survive the long winter on granola alone, that pastoral splendor is bought with the blood of butchered lambs. " And what was the ideal form of life, " ponders Marco as he waits in the snow with a rifle to make his first kill, " one that exists independently, preying on nothing, creating its own food source through photosynthesis? " Perhaps, but meanwhile folks got to eat. They have other needs and frailties too, tendencies to greed, lust, vengeance, self-preservation, and all the nasty, necessary attributes of individuality that undermine just about any scheme for utopian harmony.
Boyle has explored this territory in The Road to Wellville, Riven Rock, and A Friend of the Earth, whose eccentric male protagonists all fare poorly in the conflict between the human and the natural, self and society, woman and man. Here he divides his male protagonists into alter egos: the pure-hearted initiate Marco versus the duplicitous Pan; the flawed but flintily true Sess and the id-like, oddly appealing embodiment of all that’s wrong with the pioneer spirit, the bush pilot Joe Bosky.
A survival of the fittest prevails, organized not by natural but by artistic selection, and the end product would seem an image of Boyle’s ideal man, his ideal society. Those familiar with his work won’t be surprised to find that women get short shrift. Sess beholds with satisfaction the natural order of " 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. " And that’s the closest we’ll get to the Garden — at least until the Republicans obtain the oil-drilling rights.
T. Coraghessan Boyle reads at the Charles Hotel, 1 Bennett Street in Harvard Square, on Thursday, February 27, at 7 p.m. as part of the WordsWorth reading series. Call (617) 354-5201.