July 18, 2007

Tales From the Completist: "Drop City," by TC Boyle

(Just like anyone else who is a lover of great books, I find myself sometimes with a desire to become a "completist" of certain authors; that is, to have read every book that author has ever written. This new series of essays chronicles that attempt. Don't forget, a list of all the other books reviewed as part of this series can be found on CCLaP's main book review page.)

Drop City (2003)
By TC Boyle
Viking Penguin / ISBN: 0-670-03172-0

So first, a confession, that I still have a long way to go before becoming a completist of author TC Boyle; this is only the second novel of his I've read, to tell you the truth, the other one being The Road to Wellville, possibly his most famous because of the 1994 movie version starring Anthony Hopkins, Matthew Broderick, Bridget Fonda, John Cusack and more. Oh, but what a novel! Who knew that a contemporary author could paint such a vivid picture of events that happened nearly a century ago -- in this case, the formation of the various health spas in the upper Midwest at the turn of the 20th century, which for those who don't know were the groups who accidentally invented our modern breakfast cereals? In fact, this is one of the things that Boyle is most known for as an author; for his meticulous and exacting research into whatever time period he is writing about, and whatever crazy events were happening during that time period. Now combine this with Boyle's ability to effortlessly jump between comedy and drama, his masterful touch as a story plotter, and a personal writing style that is both unique and never manages to call attention to itself, and you've got yourself one very admired and award-winning novelist indeed.

Drop City, by TC Boyle

And of the eleven novels that Boyle has now written, arguably one of his best-known ones is 2003's Drop City, mostly because it's about the American hippie movement of the 1960s and '70s, of which Boyle was a part of himself in his own youth (having gotten his Bachelor's degree in 1968, for those who don't know). And yes, just like Wellville, this novel also features a semi-wacky concept to propel the story forward; in this case, it's about a group of young people who start their own "free love" commune at the end of the '60s (the aforementioned Drop City), which gets its start in California after founding member Norm inherits a large chunk of land from a recently expired relative. And yes, just like Wellville, Boyle uses this semi-wacky concept for both humorous and dramatic purposes; to sometimes viciously make fun of how unequipped most of these idealistic flower children are to actually "live off the land," while still legitimately admiring their desire to do such a thing, and arguing why such a desire is ultimately a good thing that all of us should at least partly aspire to.

And of course, this being Boyle, the fun doesn't stop there; about halfway through the book, in fact, the residents of Drop City get tired of all the hassles of being in California (the constant police harassment, the endless hippie mooches), and decide on a whim to move to Alaska instead, where Norm has access to yet more land owned by a relative, a grizzled fur-trapper uncle who has recently retired and moved to Seattle. And thus does Boyle get the chance to expand the story even further, by introducing the existing population of that small Alaskan town as characters themselves, and by hopping back and forth between the two groups' storylines until the moment the hippies actually get to Alaska and the plots suddenly merge.

In fact, it is within these interchanging storylines where Boyle's main strength as a writer can be seen; of the way he is able to not only parody the foibles of both groups, to point out their weaknesses and inconsistencies in a way that's oftentimes hilarious, but also display a lot of affection for both groups as well, and make us by the end fall in love a little with them too, or at least to find both groups compelling enough that we eagerly keep reading, anxious to find out their fates. And this is one of the things I really loved about Wellville too, that I very specifically remember from that book; that Boyle never takes potshots at such groups as a whole, but rather goes out of his way to show that there are varying levels of sanity and insanity in all these groups, depending on which individual within that group you're talking about. Within the extended "family" of Drop City, for example, there are all kinds of different levels of competence (or incompetence) on display, and all kinds of personality quirks that start appearing when the characters are put under stress -- from the older Alfredo, who reveals his secret love for bureaucracy every time the commune faces a crisis, to the drifter Marco, who turns out to be a much more reliable "mountain man" than even he had suspected before joining Drop City.

Boyle has a gift, a rare gift, at making every single character in his books a compelling one, at never lazily lumping these people together personality-wise but rather highlighting all the ways they are different, and of all the conflicts within such groups that these differences inspire. And this is ultimately what makes Boyle such a brilliant storyteller as well -- that his characters are always so human, so deliciously and complexly human, making us literally get sucked into his stories, no matter how ludicrous their settings or plot machinations (and make no mistake, some of the tricks used here to propel the plot forward can get positively fantastical in their ridiculousness). I'm happy to say that, far from being disappointed, my second novel of Boyle's simply confirmed for me just what a smart and entertaining writer he is, a man who can perfectly straddle that line between literary validity and mass-market popularity. Drop City is definitely a book I highly recommend, and I'm now looking highly forward to tackling his next book, whichever that might be. Do you have a suggestion, by the way, regarding which book of Boyle's that should be? By all means, please feel free to leave your thoughts as a comment!

Read even more about Drop City: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 11:20 AM, July 18, 2007. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |