Back at the commune 

T.C. Boyle calls the health department on some hippies

In “On for the Long Haul,” a short story written more than 20 years ago, author T.C. Boyle transplanted a phobic family out of their L.A. condo and into a steel-plated cabin in the middle of Western Montana. “The closest town with a hospital, bank, or restaurant was Missoula, a two-and-a-half-hour drive, an hour of it on washboard dirt,” he wrote. The washboard dirt isn’t the only part of this sardonic story that may ring a bit familiar to Indy readers. The protagonist, survivalist-wannabe and sucker extraordinaire Bayard Wemp, hauls his wife and kids to “the Last Best Place” in order to escape a wayward and doomed society. How many of Missoula’s East-coast transplants and California-born émigrés haven’t arrived here with similar escapist notions tucked safely into the back pockets of their Patagonia shorts?

“On for the Long Haul” is delightfully derisive, and we watch the always brilliant Boyle slice through his puny characters and snicker over their squandered lives with zeal and humor. Bayard buys his state-of-the-art bunker (a ready-made package deal that includes a lead-shielded basement stocked with canned food, an indestructible four-wheel drive vehicle that runs “on anything handy, from paint thinner to rubbing alcohol,” and bookshelves lined with “classics” such as Journal of the Plague Year and Hiroshima) from a slimeball entrepreneur specializing in survival homes. While Bayard and his wife Fran settle into their fortified shelter to wait out doomsday, Boyle busies himself with making an elaborate mockery of the situation. It’s Boyle at his best, ridiculing his characters and providing us with another sidesplitting story.

Twenty years later, Boyle’s still entertaining us with his sharp prose, although this time around he’s made a noteworthy departure from his signature satire. His latest novel takes another cast of finely tuned characters and plunks them down once again in survivor-mode. The players are a bunch of longhaired, commune-residing, drug-consuming hippies, circa 1970, with names like Pan, Star and Sky Dog. Drop City has all the ingredients for another Boyle farce, a cruel dissection of the oft-ridiculed and vulnerable ’60s counterculture movement. But Boyle takes a different route. He tackles the story with mercy and compassion, going easy on the scathing humor and skirting the easy laughs. Boyle without the bite? He does it surprising well, careful not to suck all the fun out of the story, but vigilant in his effort to show the good, the bad, the silly, and the human in his gang of free spirits.

The story opens on the California Drop City commune, bastion of free love and brotherhood. The residents of this hippie stronghold spend plenty of time soaking in the sun and spiking the OJ, extolling the virtues of goat milk and denouncing Big Brother’s plastic society. It’s a cozy free-for-all on the surface, but not very far into the story it becomes apparent that all is not grooving underneath. For the women of the place, free love translates into “You don’t want to be an uptight bourgeois cunt like your mother, do you?” Life at Drop City gets increasingly messy: A 14-year-old girl is raped, the latrines start to overflow, and squabbles over who’s not pulling their weight emerge. When the commune throws a massive party to celebrate the Solstice, a string of disasters follows and by sunrise both the county police and the board of health are in hot pursuit of the whole lot.

So what’s a horde of hippies to do? Pick up and relocate to Alaska, that’s what. By now we’ve already met the story’s second point of reference, Sess and Pamela Harder, a hearty, able young couple living on the skirts of the Alaskan frontier. For the first 200 pages of the book Boyle shifts between both storylines—the peaceniks in Sonoma Valley and the homesteaders deep in Alaska’s woods—so when the two groups finally meet up on a forested road outside of Boynton, Alaska, it’s an obvious and anticipated moment.

In fact, it’s right when the Drop City group arrives in Alaska to start their communal lifestyle afresh (“No rules, no zoning laws, no taxes, no county dicks and ordinances…Do you dig what I’m telling you?”) that Boyle’s efforts begin to feel somewhat clumsy and predictable. The hippies become the too-obvious foils for the sensible Sess and Pamela, and Sess and Pamela too-expectedly step in to help the innocents survive a brutal first winter. The culture clash that ensues is unsurprising—who wouldn’t guess that this group of hippies, often found wearing massive amounts of face-paint and colorful beads, stick out like a bunch of naïve children amongst the weathered locals? The obstacles and failures they face in this harsh new land don’t come as much of a shock either.

But predictable or not, the story remains entertaining throughout: It’s a pleasure to watch the culture-clash unfold, and to observe the personalities and relationships between characters develop. Boyle writes sharply enough to allow us the humor in watching the hippies struggle to reconcile fluffy ideals with real problems, but gently enough to probe his characters, pierce through the goofy caricatures, and reveal their genuine and interesting parts. This is the new Boyle, writing knowingly of human folly, going light on the ridicule and heavy on the humanness of it all.

In a nice twist towards the end of the book, it becomes evident that Boyle is less concerned with the obvious differences between groups and more interested in the similarities that bind some unlikely friendships. When allegiances are formed without taking face-paint and bell-bottoms into account, we are reminded that nonconformists come in all shapes and sizes. In these weighty times, maybe it’s not so strange to suggest that there’s a piece of the survivalist in all of us.

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