Boyle’s protean imagination works overtime in his thickly plotted ninth novel, a big, racy tale of the conflict between a radical utopian commune’s idealistic visions and the simpler imperatives of survival in the Alaskan wilderness.
In Drop City, a California hippie enclave in 1970, we observe through the eyes of its newest members: “Star,” a restless dropout from her parents’ straight life, and Mario, a hardier type who drifts into the City because he knows he wants to build things. Boyle then shifts to Boynton, Alaska (near Fairbanks), where homesteader Cecil (“Sess”) Harder and his new wife Pamela begin their life together in Sess’s well-stocked cabin in the deep woods. As parallel chunks of narrative further introduce us to both sets of characters, a ludicrous auto accident brings the heat down on Drop City, and its putative guru Norm (whose inherited wealth pays the bills) leads the group’s relocation to Alaska, where the peace-and-love people collide with the Harders. A cruel winter, sexual and racial disharmony, and Norm’s decision to pull up his personal stakes exact their toll, and the story churns fatalistically toward its violent climax, on Halloween, in sub-zero cold. Boyle has worked this territory before in several sensationally effective stories, but never with such telling detail and devastating characterizations. The best of the latter include the stoical Sess and warmhearted Pamela, murderous trapper (and Sess’s mortal enemy) Joe Bosky, and weak-willed Ronnie Sommers (a.k.a. Pan), a lethal combination of ingenuous flower-power and uncontrollable appetites. Boyle (After the Plague, 2001, etc.) never fails to enthrall and entertain, but the mordant tragicomic momentum is perhaps too explicitly subordinated to his agenda—revealed in such sequences as the aftermath of a scary episode that endangered Drop City’s toddlers (“They [i.e., the adults] didn’t want to save children, they wanted to be children”).
Probably the fullest picture of the hippie culture of the late ’60s since Marge Piercy’s early fiction, and one of Boyle’s best.