T. Coraghessan Boyle: Drop City
There are writers whose first work seems exciting and you read a few. However, after a few books, they seem to be writing more or less the same thing, with little originality, and merely appealing to a hard core readership who will read anything they write. Then, suddenly, out of the blue, they produce a new book which gets good reviews. Sometimes, the good reviews are merited and sometimes they are not. Boyle’s early works were lively and inventive and well worth reading but I eventually got the feeling that he was just going through the motions. When this novel got good reviews, I did have hopes that he was back. Sadly, this is not the case. This novel really does not, for me, have any originality and few of the trademark traits of his earlier novels.
Take the opening sentence. The morning was a fish in a net, glistening and wriggling at the dead black border of her consciousness, but she’d never caught a fish in a net or on a hook either, so she couldn’t really say if or how or why. A straight candidate for the Bulwer-Lytton Prize for bad writing. Sadly, it does not get any better. Even the blurb writer did not bother reading the book, as s/he maintains that it is about a clash between the two communities, which clearly it is not. Frankly, I cannot blame him/her for not reading it. The two communities in question are a sort of 1970s hippie commune in California, which migrates to Alaska, and the Alaskans who already live in the area, making their living out of trapping and hunting. Despite the fact that the clash between the two communities might have made an interesting story, there is little clash between the two, with most of the clashes occurring within the two communities.
The first group, the hippies, is living on land owned by Norm, who has donated it to the commune whose ideals he espouses, with money he inherited from his parents. Though he has slightly better sleeping accommodation and controls the money, he mixes in with the other inhabitants and willingly makes necessary purchases. The group has its own internal problems – the blacks who arrive and seemingly rape a young woman (with the help of some of the white men) and who contribute little, the men (black and white) who think free love means they have the right to sleep with whichever woman they want and the lack of commitment to work by many of them and those who mainly want to do drugs, drink, fuck and sleep, while living off welfare and Norm. Indeed, Boyle makes it clear that the whole idea is seriously flawed, given the human condition. It is not helped by the views of local authorities who (rightly) consider the site unsanitary and are planning to knock down the ramshackle housing. It is this that persuades the group to move to the last frontier, Alaska, where Norm’s now retired uncle has land.
Boyle clearly has more respect for the Alaskans who work hard in a difficult conditions to make a living. The hero is Sess Harder (who learned most of what he knows from Norm’s uncle). At the beginning, Patricia, a local woman, is effectively trying out the local men to see whom she will marry. Sess is the favourite and eventually wins, much to the chagrin of Joe Bosky. The major dispute we see in the book is between Sess and Joe and it becomes violent and, ultimately, fatal. When the hippies moves in, there is some resentment, but the locals see a new supply of women and also of money, both of which they take advantage of. Will the hippies survive? Will there be a major clash? Actually, I never really cared and Boyle made no effort to make me care.
First published 2003 by Viking