Reading Log: Drop City (T.C. Boyle)

I’ve been on such a reading high lately that Drop City is, despite its many and various strengths, a bit of a letdown. I’ve only read a smattering T.C. Boyle’s many novels and scads of short stories, but I still came to this novel expecting a combination of verbal fireworks and dark snark. In that, I wasn’t disappointed. But I turned the last page with some disappointment at the lack of substance and wistful musings of a different reality in which the story could amount to so much more…

Boyle presents us with two worlds that share deep similarities and profound differences: an idealistic hippie commune in California (the latest in a series of “Drop Cities”) and a mostly-off-the-grid group of people living out their subsistence—and sometimes survivalist—lives in Interior Alaska (the fictional Boynton, situated 160 miles from where I live). The parallel stories of these two groups is the proverbial gun hanging on the wall in the first act that is fired when the hippies decamp from California to pursue their communal dream on some land owned, and abandoned, by one of their members’ relatives.

Star (formerly Paulette) and Marco are the main representatives of Drop City, paralleled by Sess and Pamela in Boynton. Pan (Ronnie) was Star’s traveling partner until they arrived in the Californian Drop City and he acts as a foil for the hippie community in the same way Joe Bosky, a one-dimensional survivalist bad guy, plays one for the Boynton clan. The equivalence between the characters in each community is made too explicit, too often. Star, like Pamela, is both happy at dropping out of conventional life but also wonders if she’s doing the right thing. Pan, in his soft, stoned way, plays the Boskyan villain, Marco, like Sess, is committed to the life they’ve chosen despite his misgivings…

Except for Boyle’s exceptional facility with language and laugh-out-loud humor—which is no small thing—there’s nothing really surprising about Drop City: the plot unfolds as you’d expect, there are predictable survivors and casualties and the novel ends softly without any real commitment to the characters or the meandering exploration of the philosophy that drives them.

There are relatively few books set in Alaska, and very few that even tangentially involve the Interior where I reside. That was one of the reasons I chose to read Drop City. I was frustrated by the myriad small details that Boyle gets wrong (I suspect people from areas that are more often featured in fiction feel this way routinely), but more frustrated that an author with Boyle’s gifts didn’t do more. Still, Boyle at (what I’m guessing is) his average is still hitting a double—maybe a triple—compared to most writers who are lucky to get on base at all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *