Boyle's 'Drop City': The gold doesn't pan

February 16, 2003|By Mike Leary | By Mike Leary,Sun Staff

Drop City by T.C. Boyle, Viking, 444 pages, $25.95.

Sess Harder, the very archetype of the noble, self-sufficient Alaskan trapper, was "dumbfounded, absolutely dumbfounded. There were two men -- two Negroes, hippie Negroes -- out in the sun-spangled wash of Last Chance Creek panning for gold."

Paddling along a wilderness river, he could barely contain his amazement. "They wouldn't find half an ounce of gold in that creek if they panned it for a hundred years." And, hell, if they'd paid attention to the creek's name, they would've known better.

In Drop City, T.C. Boyle's ninth novel, he traffics in obvious stereotypes and symbolism with similarly meager results.

Boyle is justly regarded as one of the nation's finest writers of fiction, a protean talent who can as convincingly produce an 18th century picaresque (Water Music) as he can a futuristic environmental jeremiad (A Friend of the Earth).

This time, he is ransacking his past, questioning whether the hippie counterculture he delved into decades ago was merely "gentle people with flowers in their hair," or whether, alas, evil lurked in paradise, a California hippie commune -- Drop City, as in, you know, "tune in, turn on, drop out."

As ever, Boyle's prose snaps, crackles and pops, even though it at times seems as if it were crafted under the influence of psychotropic substances: "The road was like any road, burning silk in a sheen of fire, the trees like bombers coming in low."

It's just that his plotting and characters are so predictable.

At Drop City, the bad guys -- violent sexual predators and social parasites -- are easy to tell. For the most part, they're black. And the metaphor for the filthiness that transpires is pretty disgusting and equally obvious -- the septic system at Drop City is overflowing, it's a regular Augean stable.

In fact, you almost welcome the local straights who show up with bulldozers to clear this place out, prompting an exodus (in a magic bus, of course) to back-of-beyond Alaska in another fraught search for purity. There, they will encounter Sess Harder, the trapper who reviles the cornpone country singer Roger Miller, certainly enough to establish his authenticity.

One of Boyle's trademarks is to plunk his characters down amid catastrophe, and Drop City is no exception. The subarctic forests of Alaska, once the summer days fade, become a relentless, remorseless place. In the depth of winter, there is no light, only an all-encompassing darkness and a cold so powerful it presses upon you. Once again, there's heavy-handed symbolism and a confrontation of good and evil.

The novel would be easier to swallow if leavened with some of the humor and irony for which Boyle is known. But no, he delivers it pretty straight, and even then, it all seems derivative.

Boyle even has his hippies reading Richard Farina's Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, a novel that more effectively catches the madness and excesses of the era. As for Alaska, Jack London did it better, too.

Mike Leary is the national editor of The Sun and a former books editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, where he also was European correspondent. He has lived in Germany and England.

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