Sunday, August 25, 2013

the second-last book I read

Drop City by TC Boyle.

Far out, man. So this bunch of, like, totally beautiful cats have got this place in California where they've set up a hippie commune and are totally going to, like, live off the land, get it together with Mother Nature and just be, like, at one with the whole cosmic vibes of the universe. Yeah?

Well, no, not exactly. For every person that turns up at the commune who's down with all the peace and love stuff but also prepared to do the menial mucking-in stuff like building cabins and peeling potatoes there's at least one who's just in it for the free grub and easy access to drugs and doe-eyed hippie chicks still revelling in the novelty and liberation of easy access to the contraceptive pill. Not only that, but as much as California is one of the groovier states of the USA, massive public drug consumption is still illegal, as is lobbing up a load of buildings that haven't been certified as being in accordance with all the building codes and the like. So the authorities are threatening to lay some kind of major heavy trip on the commune. Bummer. What is also far from cool are the allegations that some of the less mellowed-out members of the commune gang-raped an under-age girl on the premises.

So the commune's de facto leader, Norm, has an idea - his uncle left him a property up in the wilds of Alaska, on the banks of a tributary of the Yukon. If we were really serious about getting away from the trappings of so-called "civilisation", man, we'd relocate up there, where the air is clear, the salmon are leaping, and there's nobody around to care if you want to get out of your head for a while. How hard can it be?

Well, if you're Cecil ("Sess") Harder, pretty hard, as it happens. Sess has got the Alaskan living thing pretty well nailed, with a riverside cabin, a troop of sled dogs and a well-established fur-trapping business. But it's still a pretty harsh and lonely existence, and as much as Sess would like someone to share it with it takes a certain type of woman to put up with the seclusion and remoteness, particularly in winter. But Sess is in luck, as there's a lady called Pamela who's advertised for a husband out in the wilderness because she reckons that "civilised" society is on the brink of a catastrophic meltdown and she wants to hook up with a guy who can render his own bear-fat, make moose sausages and knock together a dog-sled with just a few bits of discarded porcupine guts and some whittling. And when it turns out that all the other marriage candidates are mentally unstable malodorous perverts, Sess is in business. So he moves Pamela into his riverside cabin and they commence a life of robust rustic domesticity, with no neighbours to worry about, or at least as long as the old homestead just up the river remains empty, and who's going to take that on, right?

So the hippies head north from California, blag their way over the Canadian border by pretending to be a rock band, and arrive in Boynton, the last outpost of civilisation before you have to load all your stuff into a canoe and head upriver. Needless to say they are regarded as if they were visitors from outer space, with their psychedelic rock music, flappy loon pants and tie-dyed headscarves. While a few of the party decide to stick around in Boynton, the hardcore group head up to Norm's uncle's place and start settling in. Certain harsh lessons are learned early on - it doesn't matter how excellent the pot is if you haven't got a roof over your head when winter comes, a commitment to lentils and animal rights is a probable death sentence when you need to be laying in meat supplies for the winter, and while you can carry a few freeloaders in sunny California you really need people to pull their weight in the frozen north. Sess and Pamela try to help out where they can, and strike up a friendship with a few of the hippies, notably Marco and Paulette aka Star, but Sess has a few unresolved troubles of his own, most notably his increasingly violent feud with unhinged ex-Marine and bush pilot Joe Bosky. And when Sess takes Marco under his wing and takes him out with the dog team for a fur-trapping expedition and Joe Bosky heads after them in his plane to take a few random pot-shots at them, the scene is set for some violent plot resolution.

This is the fourth Boyle in this series, after Riven Rock, The Inner Circle and The Tortilla Curtain, and dates from 2003, a year before The Inner Circle but after the other two. It's much more of a rollicking adventure story than any of the other three, lacking the moral ambiguity of The Tortilla Curtain and not being shackled to real-life historical events like the other two. That's not to say that for all the Jack London-esque snowy adventure stuff there aren't some sly points being made here - the similarities between the seemingly poles-apart worlds of the hippies and the Alaskan backwoodsmen, for instance, revolving as they do around a shared suspicion of "society" and a desire to withdraw from it, and also the brutally repressive treatment of women meted out by both - for all the groovy peace and love business the women in the hippie commune are still expected to do most of the cooking and cleaning, as well as being uncomplaining sex receptacles as and when required. It's no accident that the action in the book is set in 1970, at the rancid tail-end of the hippie dream, well after the Summer Of Love, after Altamont and in the year the Beatles split up. I think this is probably my favourite of the four Boyles I've read so far, but they are uniformly excellent, and I fervently urge you to get into them.

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