The Road to Utopia

Usually the sour misanthrope, T.C. Boyle is surprisingly generous with naive hippies lost in the wilds.

AS LONG AS THEY'VE been able to scratch it out on dank cave walls, human beings have dreamt of paradisea mythic heaven on earth where the sky is bluer, the apple sweeter, and the fates generally kinder than their too-often ugly realities. Those who set out to actually achieve it, however, have had pretty poor luck historically: The vast majority end up drinking the Kool-Aid, either literally or metaphorically. And their fictional counterpartsin The Beach, The Mosquito Coast, and now, T.C. Boyle's Drop City (Viking, $25.95)tend to fare even worse. With City, Boyle, whose past protagonists include 19th-century health nuts, half-breed Japanese seamen, and race-baiting Los Angeles yuppies, turns his well-sharpened pen to the bygone '60s-into-'70s world of idealistic communes. His ninth novel chronicles the ultimately doomed attempts of one such colony to preserve its cocoon of peace, brotherhood, and patchouli in the harsh face of human frailty. It's a well-worn path, which Boyle knows; so he treads lightly, by and large, without shying away from the darker brambles that spring up along the way. The book's 444 pages brim over with supporting characters who populate both the titular Drop Citya California compound lorded over by a Dexedrine-crazed farmer named Norm and colonized by a diverse collection of freaks, dropouts, and dabbling suburbanitesand the edge-of-the-world Boynton, a remote Alaskan settlement. Boyle alternates Drop City between two central couples that connect the seemingly disparate locations. High-school-friends-turned-lovers Ronnie (hippie code name: Pan) and Paulette (a.k.a. Star) make their way from stifling suburban New York state to Drop City's Valhalla. Meanwhile, Stoic Jack London prototype Sess Harder and his soon-to-be wife, Pamela, toil away at frontier life in Boynton. PAN AND STAR slip into Drop City life with easeat first. Star spends long, pleasantly stoned hours in the kitchen with the "chicks" turning out communal meals and gossiping idly, while Pan hangs with the "cats" (the book is full of period lingoget used to it) lounging by the algae-covered pool, occasionally lending a hand on manly-type projects, and generally enjoying the ripe fruits of free love. But when seasoned traveler Marco arrives on the property and pulls a smitten Star into his orbit, cool-beans Pan finds himself not feeling so fond of the two-way-street concept anymore. Trouble compounds when a few bad applesvisiting "spades" from San Francisco and the commune's own miscreantsbegin to rot and contaminate the bunch. Then a 15-year-old runaway is gang-raped one night, while Pan and others look on, too doped up to protest. So begin the whispered, then shouted divisions among Drop City members. Tensions escalate as the everyday concerns of communal lifethe lack of a working septic system, kids dipping into the acid-laced orange juiceirrevocably transform easygoing sloganeering. LATWIDNO ("Land Access to Which Is Denied No One," dig?) turns to the far less laissez-faire PYWOB ("Pull Your Weight or Bail"). When fed-up local authorities shut down the building and health hazard that is Drop City (about halfway through the book), commune leader Norm decides to transfer his utopian vision to the last great American frontierAlaska, a land where "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." Initially, shocked residents cling to their sun-baked, feces-covered home, but Norm's drug-fueled pioneer enthusiasm soon infects them alleven those who have never learned how to milk the community goats, much less build a log cabin from scratch. During the meantime, back up north near the Drop-outs' soon-to-be home, real-life Daniel Boone Sess is busy wooing and winning Anchorage city girl Pamela, whose desire to go back to the land appears to mesh, miraculously, with Sess' hardscrabble one-room-cabin, moose-jerky-and-fox-trap lifestyledespite Boynton's Northern Exposure-noir characters, many of whom are just as odd and iconoclastic as the more traditionally "outsider" Drop City newcomers. THE INEVITABLE CLASH between the two groups, when it finally comes, is handled with considerable grace and finesse. Though some of Boyle's characterizations travel along the expected harsh lines (pinpoint-pupiled hippies attempting to sell decorative pottery to grizzled trappers, stiff-jawed locals who open their mouths only to drink or sneer), he allows those lines to blur, morally and otherwise. It's no great shock, despite initial static, that Drop City's two central couples become friends. As Boyle portrays them, they all belong to the same generation of Americans attempting to carve out a life beyond the safe parameters of conventional society. The author makes clear that he believes in the foursome's innate ability to establish and sustain their own path; though other, more peripheral characters have neither the temperament nor the inner resources to do soergo, the darker and more classically Boyle-ian aspects of the book. Boyle has long specialized in exploring the elements that jam the cogs of social order. Those elements may wear a thousand facesL.A. yuppies, Japanese sailors, Alaskan trappersyet he always somehow manages to create an intricate, self-sustaining world, one that's often hard to leave when the last page is turned. Drop City is no different. In fact, it's better, and more full of real empathy, than anything he's done in years.

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