In 1970 the shabby members of a California commune pull up stakes and move to the harsh interior of Alaska. They establish Drop City, a back-to-the-land town, on a foundation of peace and free love. But their idealism cannot prevent tension from rippling through the group.
There is a sense of inevitability that things are going to go wrong with the communal living so it isn't the most original storyline, but the Alaska part adds an interesting dimension and you get a real sense of the hardships of these lifestyle choices.
This book does not have much of a story. There is no real plot to speak of, no happy or unhappy endings, no real tragedies. Although there are trials and triumphs, the reader does not seem to get to know the more main characters all that well. Everyone is an enigma.
What this book does well is describe. It describes people, places, events, and feelings quite poignantly. What all this description really means, however, remains unknown. Although easy to read and somewhat interesting, the pace is relatively slow and leaves one with the "What is this about?" feeling. What was lacking in story was made up for in description, but it did not feel like quite enough to call this book good; it was OK. It was like a short story gone way too far.
"Don't Even Bother"
This is the most devilish account of life in a commune...not at all accurate! IS HE KIDDING ME! What this person (T.C. Boyle)reports about life in an intentional community, is so off that it makes me shudder. If you happen to have read it and found it to be a truthful account then I know you have never bothered to visit a "hippy" commune or ventured to live in one. It is utter ridiculousness. I found myself in a constant state of shock while reading what his sick imagination came up with for the daily goings on in a commune.
If a writer has no idea what they are writing on, they need to take some time off from pumping out novella and get to a research course. I am still aggered and I grabbed this pulp fiction the minute I found out that it was about my clan. At least someone bothered to write on the subject, too bad he had absolutly no clue about his subject.
Even the people he writes about in Alaska, wilderness men. all seem to be portrayed as thugs, and total drunkerds. Nice Mr. Boyle...the only two novels I have read of yours make me think that there is no hope for the world. Even the good guys are painted so UGLY. It just makes you want to give up. I am already somewhat worried about the way things seem to be going at times, you are no comfort, and lead the mind to some very dark speculation. Is it meant to shake a finger at the wrong-doers I think not, it occurs to me that you have a very low opinion of some fairly decent folks.
The story of the commune has yet to be written. We should all take up our pens...those who have acutally lived it and those who have a finer mind. This work was almost indecent, in all of its inaccuracies. Rape of a child in the first chapters and feeding babies drugs soon thereafter. I just get sickened. Take a class in research Mr. Boyle...
NOW... My latest review in amazon:
I didn't enjoy reading this book, not because of any lack of imagination or talent on the part of the author. If you're into dismal fantasy, this is as good as it gets. The lack of reality, was a huge dissappointment. Coming from the perspective of one who has lived in a commune. I was actually enraged at times and spent the majority of my reading time trying to be objective about T.C.'s his lack of care of the people he was damning with this book.
I read Tortilla Curtain after just ro see what sort of writer he was, I found him to have a nasty attitude, and while the story was compelling, he is a good writer...he appered to me to be a bigot and a falsifyer. His perspective is skewed in an unholy direction. Just my opinion. I cannot abide his foul take on things, though I can see his skill as a writer...which makes me dispise him even more.
He will influence many with his persuasive intellect, and that worries me. He is angry and unforgiving, and it shows.
One of the annoying things in this book is the author's tendency to use the given and hippie names of the Drop City residents interchangeably. I was always forgetting whose name had been changed to what. I am sure there is a reason for this back and forth between the two names, but for the life of me I can't figure it out.
The ending sort of reminds me of the movie American Beauty. At the end, everyone sort of gets what they want or deserve (and Boyle makes it clear that what you deserve is what you really want), but the reader is left wondering if that really is the case after all. I rather like the ending, which is why this book gets a higher rating.
Just as good the second time.
Your usual Boyle fare... I just want to know what happens next!
I really enjoyed the parts that told about life in such a remote and extreme place. It was a bit like little house on the prairie because of the lack of mod cons. Ces and his wife made almost everything they had including the cabin. But they loved it. The garden was a joy. The trapping a job. The dogs weren’t pets, they were necessary equipment. No power or running water either (unless you count the river). Their dependence and independence were balanced and the fact that they opted out was compelling. I was kind of jealous of their ability to confidently eschew most of the modern world. As much as I’d like to strip away all of my dependence on society and all of its mod cons, I cannot. They are too firmly part of how I view the world and how I live. But these folks don’t need that and can leave it behind with a sigh of relief.
The communal hippie lifestyle on the other hand, I have no wistful longing for. A person would really need to be selfless to live this way. To make it work, each person would have to care more about the whole than himself. Because only as a whole can it survive. If each member didn’t suppress her innate selfishness, it would collapse. I don’t have that kind of giving nature. As it turns out, very few did in this story. Sure, when times were good, they were all happy and loving and all was right with the world. But whenever some kind of hardship arose, those other core attributes of humanity came out with a vengeance. People started hording food, acting out violently from jealousy, abusing positions of leadership. All part of being human, but not helpful for a communal society.
And all the drugs were off-putting. How can people even function with that amount of chemical interference? Perhaps that’s part of the glue that holds them together though. Maybe it allows them enough illusion to keep functioning. Maybe it keeps the darker nature at a bay longer. At any rate, keeping a constant supply of pot and other drugs was paramount for the members of Drop City. I thought it would be more of a hindrance in Alaska than it was, but they still survived while stoned, although not as thoroughly stoned as they were in California.
Unlike The Inner Circle, this novel does have a plot, a goal, something that needs to get done. Sure, we get a lot of extraneous detail, but it is a joy to read and Boyle wrings emotion from the reader in many forms; anger, hope, joy and world-weary frustration. That’s what the hippies engendered in me anyway. They made me laugh with their dopey view of the world, but that also made me frustrated. Couldn’t they see what their problem was? They cherry-picked qualities of human nature, taking the ones they liked and leaving the ones they didn’t. Just because they didn’t like deceit, violence or selfishness, doesn’t mean they could escape them.
And they are not the only ones who long for escape. The other half of the tale starts with the small town of Boynton, Alaska. Situated at the end of the state highway, Boynton is about as remote as you can get and still have a road. People who chose to live here are pretty unique. They’re self-sufficient, yet know their reliance on others in the community is the key to survival out there. They want to be free and live off the land, but unlike the hippies who will soon descend, they don’t have any sunshine and bunnies illusions about nature. It is indeed red in tooth and claw.
When the hippies arrive, life soon separates the wheat from the chaff. Slackers take up with other slackers. Soon, light dawns on pot heads that they need to work to survive and work together and that means rules. It means following the rules and they finally get that they have to obey or die. They get their shelters built, some supplies laid and hunker down for the winter. But close-quarters living like this is new to them. It’s 50 below zero and there is no release from the constant chaffing of others’ bad habits. Things boil over, there is a separation into tribes and things get tense.
The natives do their best to help them, specifically from Cecil Harden and his very new wife and another local Joe, a fairly wealthy bush pilot, the sworn enemy of Ces. It is this conflict that escalates throughout and eventually culminates in extreme violence and tragedy, taking one of the hippies with it. In the end, the Hardens stay in Boynton, living an idyllic life for them and have as neighbors and friends, those of the hippie commune who are tough enough in body and mind to stay.
I have always wondered what Alaska is like. I have been in California a couple of times but never Alaska.
It is hard to believe that this once belonged to Russia. T. C. Boyle does not mention this fact, but it is irrelevant for the purposes of both the author and of the story, anyway. Or is it?
One of the things illustrated very well by the group in Drop City South, and then the other group in Alaska, both before and after the South group merges with it, is that it is amazing feat for any society to exist anywhere, anytime.
The forces that tend to pull apart any already-established group, even established with the best of intentions, are powerful and relentless. The generosity of the man who volunteers his land and his vehicle in the California commune is perhaps the only means by which that group can get underway. But when the economic underpinnings and the cohesion of the group are menaced by the trouble-makers, things rapidly disintegrate.
But I think this is true of all societies everywhere. I have not read Wittgenstein, but I heard that he wrote that societies have a life cycle. Large and small, they rise, peak, and then fall. Just like Rome had the Carthaginian Wars, does every successful society hasten its own demise, just by the very act of succeeding?
The Alaska group is shown in the rising, struggling phase, trying to lead to independence and sufficiency of resources. I was constantly asking myself if they would make it to the peak, or would prematurely die out. The climax of the book definitely seems to be the indicator of continued survival. Or is it?
Further to that same point, does the result of the decision by the main character regarding whether to save or not to save his injured worst enemy at the end of the book indicate the beginning of the downfall of the society of which he is the shining example? (After all, he is about the smartest guy around for actually surviving in Alaska, not like some of the other idiots how end up there. Please note that just like many other great works of art, apart from one being evil and one being good, this man and his arch-enemy share the ability to survive logically and intelligently in the wild Alaskan climate.)
I have lost track of how many stories I have read where a virtuous character could save someone who is dying, but is torn because the injured character is a jerk. They will die without help, but deserve to die because they were a scumbag, or some other terrible kind of person. Just like it was said that even a criminal loves his own children, perhaps Sess Harder has to ask himself one more time if maybe Joe Bosky might save Sess Harder if he was lying injured in the snow. No matter how many times Joe tried to kill him, Sess has to ask if there would be one time sometime in an unknown and only barely guessed at future, that Joe might turn a corner and turn into a better person. How can Sess possibly ever make up his mind on this topic? This is the moral dilemma that T. C. Boyle is faced with as an author, and each reader is faced with who is led by T. C. Boyle into vicariously experiencing the necessity of making this impossible decision. Is anybody capable of rising about the moral degeneracy that is in each of our hearts, even for just a moment, or will we lapse into our habitual mediocrity and malignity?
Last comment--I am sure that some other readers will also, like myself, have observed that Drop City South and the isolated Alaska community together form a thesis and anti-thesis. In the South, serious about communal sharing and back-to-the-Earth, but with a serious devotion to drugs and other escapes from reality, as well as with some fringe criminal elements. In the North, again, living in a tough environment, where survival can be often only achieved through a perilous venture, and again with a fringe element that is criminal and reckless. Plainly both groups have extremes of good and bad.
So what an amazing experiment to see what happens when they combine together. What is the synthesis? The second half of the book give a tantalizing hint as to what could come next, but truly, T. C. Boyle enlists the imagination of the reader to continue the work of creation in deciding what the group will look like 5 years hence, or 10 years hence. I think about this topic frequently, even 2 or 3 months after having finished the book. The characters, even though they are made-up, have become a part of my life. Have they become part of yours?
The author's style is punchy and direct, and so is ideally suited to the subject, with an omniscient narrator whose tone of exposition varies according to whichever character is prominent in the story. There is a lot of fun at the hippies' expense, but they are not caricatures, for some of them reveal unexpected strengths and talents: one of the pleasures of the book lies in the author's exploration of their multi-faceted personalities. Likewise, although the novel is no advertisement for the denizens, culture or climate of Alaska, we come to understand something of what impels people to live lives of almost unimaginable hardship in hand-built cabins with no services or communications, enjoying a diet of moose and bear and not much else, and where the night of winter is several months long and the temperature regularly falls to 40 below freezing. Having no experience whatsoever of all this, I am quite unable to say how authentic the author's narrative actually is, but I found it totally convincing - parts of it could almost be used as a survival manual!
Although the topography and natural history of Alaska, not to mention its strangeness for most readers, almost require the author to indulge in passages of description, these are always subservient to the development of plot and character, and there are no wearisome purple patches. Indeed, the narration carries the reader along in fine style, the pages flash by, and in an almost unprecedented event I kept away from the internet for 48 hours, every spare moment being given over to finding out what happened next.
This book centres around two drastically different communities in the late 60s/early 70s hippy era: a commune in California and a bush community in Alaska living off trap lines and hunting trips. Boyle carefully sets up both of these communities as opposing ends of the same phenomenon - both, in their individual ways, are trying to drop out of a mainstream American society that they feel no fraternity with. However, that's where the similarity ends as these two are mirror images of each other. The commune may attract tourists and converts but its commitment to living off the land is laughable in comparison to the Alaskans, whose continued existence depends on it. It soon becomes clear that these communities are heading for a spectacular collision.
There is an underlying irony; that the eponomous Drop City community, formed as a means of dropping out of society and living in harmony with the land, finds it impossible to do so despite the visible evidence that it is possible, provided by the Alaskans they live alongside. The longer Drop City remains in the Alaskan bush, the more this becomes a study of the decay and breakdown of a society under pressure created by the reality of living wild in Alaska. It is a symbolic representation of the disintegration of the dream the commune member have, the artificial, romanticised version of Alaskan life they have constructed in their minds. I have seen this book described in other reviews as a comment on the American Dream. If that is the case, then Boyle seems to have penned a fairly damning indictment of those who seek it, implying naivety and unrealistic expectations.
It is a well-characterised and complex novel, certainly not just 'one of the crowd' of hippy novels this period continues to spawn. The question remains, is it a great book? For me, it was a very good book, competently executed, enjoyable and easy to read but it never really crossed the line to greatness. Possibly it suffered from the fact that I didn't really like any of the characters. There was certainly little that really stuck with me from this but it was enjoyable enough that, as I said earlier, I will read more from T.C. Boyle. An enjoyable read but not necessarily a 'must-read'.
The economic details of where money (cash!) comes from are rather sparse. There is talk of welfare, food stamps, trapping, gold mining, drug sales, and stripping ... but those details cover only a very few characters and not in sufficient detail. Living off the land? Yes, to some extent!
An engaging story that is well told. I'm ready for another TC Boyle book.
Initially the two societies appear to be decidedly distinct. Drop City, made up of hippies and draft dodgers, is a place to be free of societies' moral constraints, where free love and drug-taking is endemic, where 'chilled' generally means lazy. In contrast the inhabitants of Boynton, face an almost daily uphill struggle just to stay alive, a place where self-discipline means survival but when the police threaten to close down the original Drop City, its inhabitants, led by there guru-like leader Norm, decamp to the outskirts of Boynton with the intention of establishing a new settlement, out of reach of the authorities and living off the land.
Living cheek by jowl and faced with months of cold and darkness stretching ahead it soon becomes apparent that the two communities actually share a number of similarities. In particular, both are riven by internal discord. For the hippies petty jealousies gets in the way of the much vaunted sexual freedom and challenges their 'peace and love' ideals. Meanwhile a jealous, murderous feud is taking place between two of Boynton's inhabitants Sess Harder and Joe Bosky. The commune's open-doors policy results in a sudden influx of new arrivals which causes tensions in the commune and the town. Both communities appear permanently poised on the precipice of catastrophe, man-made or natural.
Personally I found the Californian section of this novel somewhat aimless, lacking a real sense of direction, and the book wasn't really working until the two communities were merged. Only by bringing them together do we see what the author is really trying to say. That if you strip away the hippies' free love philosophy then there is little to separate them and the backwoodsmen, both are retreating from the conventions of society. This, I found it amusing, also seemed somewhat simplistic, because whilst the hippies had a choice the locals didn't.
I found this an interesting insight into the drop-out culture of the 60's and early 70's but as Star, the main female hippy character, and her lover Marco eventually comes to realise their 'freedom' isn't without costs and not as radical as they supposed. I found it hard to like any of the hippy characters who were shallow and fickle, they purported to want nothing to do with society yet were happy to take hand-outs from it. In contrast I came to admire, Sess Harder and his wife Pamela, in their attempts to carve out a life for themselves.
However, for me the main weakness in this novel is that it lacked any real sense of struggle. I never really felt that any of the characters were ever in real jeopardy, there were differences but they weren't fully explored and as a result, the climax, when it comes, was rather disappointing. On the whole I enjoyed the author's writing style and the book contains some amusing episodes, the genital crabs spring to mind, but I never really believed that he had any real idea what he was trying to achieve. Therefore, an OK read with some interesting ideas but one that could have been better.
Well, this one isn't going to change your life. It isn't going to change your perception of the time, unless starting from a place of ignorance. If you like to read about this time period and if you appreciate great writing, you'll like the book. There's a rawness he captures and even a baseness in humanity that seems awfully realistic. Boyle shows his talent in the way he explores all kinds of people in his novels and how drastically different his full and shorter length stories can be.
Some quotes I like:
pg. 1 "The morning as a fish in a net, glistening and wriggling at the dead black border of her consciousness, but she'd never caught a fish in a net or on a hook either, so she couldn't really say if or how or why."
pg. 30 "In the morning, which came hurtling out of the sky like a Russian missile aimed straight at his brain, Pan opened his eyes on the stiff tall grass and the golden seedheads dropping over him as if he were already dead and decomposing. "
pg. 39 "Like Leda maybe, Leda all wrapped in feathered glory, Leda and the Swan. That had been her favorite poem in Lit class, and she'd read it over and over till it was part of her, all that turmoil and fatality spinning out of a single unguarded moment, and that was something, it was, but what made her face burn and her fingers tingle was the weirdness of the act itself. Picturing it. Dreaming it. The flapping of the wings, the smell, the violence."
pg. 49 "...the county health inspector would have plenty to say and it wouldn't reflect a higher consciousness either."
pg. 160 "It felt like the middle of the night, but it was light out, and for the life of her she couldn't have said whether it was dawn or dusk. The light had no source, direction-it just held, as gray and dense as water, and the limbs of the oak were suspended in it like the superstructure of a dream.:
pg. 207 "When Pamela stepped in the door, there was nobody in the place, though it was ten 'clock in the morning and people were moving up and down the street outside like bloodclots working their slow way through the veins of the town."
pg. 257 "Nothing's the way you picture it," Star said. "The mind creates its own reality, and how could the real and actual thing ever match that? It's like a movie compared to a cartoon."
"Or a book," Maya said. "A book compared to a movie."
pg. 315 "...because it would be nice to get a letter once in a while, to correspond, to reaffirm that there was a world out there beyond the cool drift of the river. As she went back up the hill with the laden plate the polar sun reached out and pinned her shadow to the ground."
pg. 417 "The moon was a terrifically heavy thing as he crouched there beneath it-unsupportable, that moon, crushing..."
Many readers whose ideology is very compatible with this novel are probably put off by its cover in which nude people, lying face-down, make a crater in a lush-looking undergrowth. As the novel is the story of a failed commune, however, the cover is perfect.
"Free love" doesn't work out so well in practice, especially for the very young, very pretty women (both of 'em), who get real choosy real fast. (When a virulent strain of crabs breaks out in the commune, it doesn't work out too well for the men either). Equally impracticable: staying high on drugs 24/7 and the actual labor required 24/7 for communal self-sufficiency. In spite of the high ideals of the brotherhood and much guitar strumming, some in the commune are more locust than brother: vicious sociopaths determined not to pull their own weight and to devour every human and natural resource. As for the leader of the commune--you'll have to read the novel. Suffice it to say he is never celibate, or hungry, or lacking in cash or abuseable substances.
Boyle shows, in his inimitable ironic style, how the "establishment" gets "established", as our tree-house-dwelling young lovers are drawn inexorably toward parent-figures Sess and Pamela--and toward monogamy, sobriety (more or less), and the comfortable middle-class existence required to raise their babies and keep the locusts at bay.
My reception? Pretty negative.
A group of hippies in 1970 form an intentional community on a piece of land South of San Francisco. Simultaneously, we're made aware of a conservative redneck [I don't mean this term in a derogatory way] couple up in Alaska, "making it off the land." The hippies get kicked off their land in California and move in next to the rednecks up in Alaska. One of the hippies joins forces with the enemy of the redneck, and both enemies end up dying, after a lot of hardship due to them on the part of the hippies and the rednecks.
The book is extremely negative. When something can go wrong, it does. By the middle of the book I became paranoid, glancing around every corner, pondering what would be the next disaster. And I have to say, I actually got pretty good at predicting when and how things would go wrong.
My guess is that our author, Boyle, is an atheist in the most pessimistic of ways. There is not one shred of beauty in the entire four-hundred and sixty four pages. Well, although there were many opportunities for beauty, our author missed all of them. From many perspectives, the book could be romantic - people living off the land, focused on community and relationships.
Why do I say atheist? Because the book just leaves you wondering, am I just putzing around until I die? Does a human life have any real purpose or value at all? It seems our author has concluded, no, it does not. And although I won't lay out my viewpoints here, I will mention that I disagree with him. There's still some hope left in me, some humanity.
There are some names dropped in the text which served some relevance to the generation. At the moment, those of G. I. Gurdjieff and John McLaughlin are coming to mind. So it's not as though Boyle just made up the entire book. Some aspects of the context aren't that far off base. But clearly, Boyle is not a hippy, nor is he a redneck.
There are some nice aspects of the book. For example, we come to see that hippies and rednecks really care about the same thing. Ultimately, this could be said about any two subcultures. But it's nice to find this slightly inspiring message hidden under all of the doom and gloom.
Read my original post here.