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March 26th, 2003 Nick Obourn | Books
 

Tuning In

T.C. Boyle's new novel on hippie communalism is a departure for the author.

     
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It's rumored that T. C. Boyle begins writing each day by bleeding a chicken into a pan. He soaks his feet in the pan until the blood cools, then stops writing for the day. Unfortunately for chickens, he writes seven days a week, four to six hours a day--a prodigious pace that's paid off.

Boyle has penned more than 150 published short stories and nine novels. Drop City, his new novel, is the culmination of a set of ideals and theories he's been toying with throughout several books: American invention and re-invention.

In East Is East (1990), a myopic Hiro Tanaka jumps ship off the coast of Georgia in search of the city of brotherly love and the American dream. All he finds is a New Age artist retreat, a struggling and alluring female writer, and the irony of his hopes lampooned by the INS. The Road to Wellville (1993) is a satirical sojourn into an early-20th-century sanitarium run by Dr. Kellogg, whose revolutionary dietary ethos keeps his socialite patients attenuating on gluten mush--the patients have an unflinching devotion to the good doctor even as they drop dead like lab rats. With great historical accuracy, the fictional Riven Rock (1998) traces the life of the tragic son of the man who invented the mechanical reaper.

Boyle is obsessed with invention married with idealism, and he uses it to refract the outcomes of his often hapless characters. Boyle takes great pride in collapsing what he builds, injecting his characters with such strong beliefs that there's no way for them to go but down.

Drop City, set in 1970 amid the Keseyan revolution that encouraged "cats and chicks" to drop out‚ is decidedly more romanticized, less comic and less satirical than Boyle's previous work. The book shares its name with a hippie commune forced to migrate from California. Its residents acquire a school bus, pack in and turn toward the wild abandon of the Alaskan frontier.

The members of Drop City include Norm, the self-appointed guru and inheritor of the new Alaskan land refuge; lovers Star and Marco; Pan, Star's jealous former sweetheart; and a raft of other free lovers/loaders who drop like a meteor into the 49th state.

Misfortune comes quick enough. The commune's goats and a dog are mauled by a wolverine, and the tribe runs out of drugs. One commune member contracts crabs from a moneymaking stint at a strip club, and, in no time, the disease spreads.

But two characters--Sess Harder and his wife, Pamela--are Boyle's role models in Drop City. They represent the reality of survival in the new Alaskan frontier. They're also a deeply conventional couple. Surprisingly, the inevitable mingling of Drop City and the Harders is a much warmer interaction than one would expect from Boyle. Star becomes fast friends with Pamela in a land where companionship is usually a sled dog, while Marco, in turn, learns the art of survival from Sess. It's an admirable direction for this author, leaving us with the hope of community instead of just chaos.

In Drop City, Boyle has softened the often harsh tones his works ring with. The novel, his most polished yet, will satiate devout Boyle fans and should attract attention from those who are not.


Boyle will read at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Wednesday, March 26.



Drop City
By T.C. Boyle (Viking, 464 pages, $25.95)
 
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