When worlds collide . . .

Drop City, by T. Coraghessan Boyle. In 1970, a bunch of turned-on, tuned-in, dropped-out hippies living in a commune called Drop City decide to move up north. Up north, that is, all the way to the heart of the Alaskan wilderness, miles from nowhere, inaccessible except by boat (summer) or mushing (winter). The story of these inept, ridiculous, pathetic hippies alternates with the story of the people who are already living in the wilderness, the guys & gals who know how to survive the minus-sixty degree winters and even enjoy doing it.

Boyle does a great job of building tension and suspense as he alternates between the two groups. He doesn't just trade viewpoints with alternating chapters, which would feel cheap; he gives you maybe 100 pages of one before switching to the other. So there's this slow build-up -- and you just know that when these people meet each other it's going to be baaaaaad!

I don't know if this is his intent, but Boyle also does a great job of making wilderness survival seem tawdry and unappealing, rather than the glamorous romantic thing I've always envisioned. Here's a sample from the life of the real survivalists:
[S]he dragged the bear's hide out to the picnic table and sat in the sun working the flesh off it with the ulu Sess had given her for a birthday present. The ulu was an Inuit tool, a bone handle attached to a crescent-shaped blade, and it was ideal for scraping hides, a task she guessed she would be performing pretty regularly as the winter months came on and her husband brought her the stiffened corpses of whatever he'd managed to kill out there in the secret recesses of the country. And how did she feel about that -- how did she feel about this, about this stinking, flea-and-tick-ridden hide under the knife right here and now in a hurricane of flies and the blood and grease worked up under her nails and into every least crease and line of her hands so that she'd never get the smell out? . . . She slapped a mosquito on her upper arm and the imprint of her hand was painted there in bear's blood. She flicked flies out of her face.

Nice, huh? And here's how it is on the hippie side:
People were scattered around the room in a funk of unwashed clothes and matted hair, down, dejected, disheveled, the energy level hovering around zero -- they didn't even look as if they'd be able to lift the forks to their mouths come dinner, and Star had a brief fantasy of feeding them all by hand, then changing their diapers and putting them to bed one after the other. It was depressing. When they spoke, it was in a whisper, as if nobody really wanted to express their thoughts aloud, and the cramped space of the meeting hall buzzed with an insectoid rasp of timbreless voices sawing away at the fabric of the afternoon.

This book was simultaneously fascinating and painful to read. The characters were, for the most part, stagnant. Star, the hippie female protagonist, grew and learned a little bit through her travails, but not enough to make it really worthwhile. Pamela, Star's survivalist counterpart -- and the book is neatly organized with good guy-bad guy and romantic couple mirror-images on both sides -- is just not believable. Both good guys have uncontrolled tempers (at times) that made me want to slap them. Both bad guys both were classic cases of borderline personality disorder. Yuk.

In short: this book definitely held my attention. I found myself rushing for it any time I had five minutes to spare. The pacing was perfect, and Boyle can spin a good yarn. But I'm not sure I'll be running to the library for all his other novels. At least, not any time soon.

* * *

I will, however, be running to the library first thing tomorrow morning to pick up the three books I have on hold: Flatland, and the two Muriel Spark novels. The responses to my proposed reading plan have been interesting. Honestly, I highly doubt I'll read more than a couple of those Penguin classics. Or -- I'll read more than a couple, perhaps, but not consecutively. Don't fence me in!


  • What is borderline personality disorder?

    I'm curious to hear your review of Flatland.

    posted by Anonymous Laura on 12:23 AM  

  • I liked Flatland, which my husband had from a college physics course (or was that Dancing with the Wu Li Masters?). What Muriel Sparks are you reading? I read the Fifth Child while pregnant. NOT a good idea!

    posted by Blogger doulicia on 9:37 AM