Down with hippies
It is a sad day for American arts and letters when one of the most celebrated of contemporary storytellers, T.C. Boyle, winner of the 1987 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the 1999 PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, can think of nothing better to do with his talent than piss on hippies for 444 pages. Boyle’s latest discharge, Drop City, is a mean-spirited, below-the-belt kick to the memory of 1960s counterculture. An ignoble attempt to debunk, once and for all, the last shimmer of illusion surrounding the psychedelic generation, Drop City revels in predictable T.C. Boyle foppery. Oh-so-fashionably cynical, Boyle’s tale has all the depth of a pothole on I-80. The novel redeems nothing of the counterculture but stale clichés and bad trips.
The year is 1970, and Drop City, a hippie commune located on a Sonoma County ranch, is one happenin’ place—theoretically speaking, that is. Drop City is an open society that practices LATWIDNO: Land Access to Which is Denied No One. People are free to come and go as they please. They are also free to work when they feel like it, trip whenever, boink like bunnies and generally follow their own individual muse on an hourly basis. Sounds pretty cool, right? What’s not to like about a community of free individuals committed to the communal good; to sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll; to pacifism; to cooperation; to love, for Christ’s sake?
A lot. At least according to the alleged prophet of his age, T.C. Boyle. Boyle doesn’t like anything about the hippie project. His hippies, hollow caricatures chiseled out of a silent-majority nightmare, are damned from the start. Narcissistic dopes, Boyle’s characters act out of sheer desperation and ignorant adolescent fancy. Not surprisingly, Boyle is much more interested in the dark side of flower power. He portrays jealous hippies; thieving hippies; smelling, grubby, burnout hippies; brawling hippies; vengeful hippies; itchy, crab-infested hippies; rapist hippies; sexist hippies; and hippies who couldn’t care less.
For instance, Merry comes to hippiedom by way of a boy with a sexy Southern accent: “He said let’s go to San Francisco, that’s where the scene is, and I went. … We stayed a couple of places. People he knew. We did drugs. I worked checkout at a Walgreens for a while, and when nobody was looking, I’d shake pills out of bottles, you know, that sort of thing. … And then we joined this commune—Harrad House? It wasn’t like this, not at all. More into sex. A group marriage kind of thing.”
Admittedly, Merry’s tale is firmly rooted in historical fact, as are many of the subculture’s paradoxes, inconsistencies and downright hypocrisies Boyle chooses to emphasize throughout the novel. It’s no secret that the counterculture of the 1960s had its problems. But come on, we’ve all seen Forrest Gump at least two times. A few of us have even read Thomas Frank’s recent Ph.D. dissertation, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture and the Rise of Hip Consumerism. We know the hippie scene was sponsored by Pepsi and Volkswagen and that the entire trip was just one big marketing campaign. We’re hip to the general Americanness of the thing; that, in fact, many aspects of this so-called counterculture were firmly rooted in the American experience and that, try as they might, the hippies failed to transcend their greater cultural-historical context. Does Boyle truly think that we neo-punk wired folk would be so naïve as to believe that there was something greater, some force or spirit—perhaps even a cosmic vibe—behind all that peace and love nonsense?
Maybe so. Maybe, just maybe, a few of us have yet to lose faith in the hippie vision. Maybe a few of us still have the courage to, at the very least, imagine a different world—a world built upon a foundation of peace, love and cooperation.
But then, one would almost have to be high to possess such faith today. Ain’t that right, T.C.?