T.C. Boyle’s novel Drop City
(2003), set in 1970, follows a group of counter-cultural free spirits living in California who make the voyage to a remote part of Alaska. Named after Drop City, Colorado, the novel follows the commune as they navigate the harsh landscape of the Alaskan interior in search of a place to practice their peaceful, free-loving lifestyle. The novel was a finalist for the 2003 National Book Award.
Boyle presents a satirist view of the 1970s hippy culture, poking fun at people’s naivety and ineptitude as they attempt to thwart conventional American society. The book juxtaposes two very different groups who share some similar goals: the Harders and the Drop City commune, both seeking to get back to the land and to escape from a world that feels fake and foreign to them. They believe that they can develop their own society based on their distinct values, finding something real within the Alaskan wilderness. The Drop City collective believes in the old adage of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll and that this will somehow save the world and restore humanity to modern society.
Drop City’s founder, Norm Sender, is a free-spirited fellow who believes in the idea of “voluntary primitivism,” suggesting that the group relocate from its home base in Sonoma County, California to the Alaskan wilderness, creating a community where everyone is welcome, a kind of collective assembly of the misfits of society with each individual contributing based on his or her skill set. Together, the group forms a kind of found family where they can share in one another’s spiritual growth.
However, the ideal of the community is far from the reality. The ranch they live on is run down due to the lack of responsibility displayed by its residents, many of whom have been attracted to the place by its lack of rules and discipline. Many of the residents are permanently sedated by drugs and alcohol, further impairing them and making it nearly impossible to actually get anything done. This leaves the brunt of the work for the few who are motivated and care to work hard. What’s more, the community is badly in need of a new septic system, but without anyone motivated enough to make this happen, they end up living on land that is totally contaminated with human waste.
Although the group prides themselves on being inclusive and having a collective mentality, they are actually a collection of individualistic people only concerned with their own well-being. The men use the concept of free love as an excuse to get sex from whomever they please, claiming anyone who refuses them is repressed.
California officials, concerned about public safety, eventually force the group out of their home. This is when Norm decides that the group will head north to Alaska, in spite of the fact that he is oblivious to the realities of the Alaskan wilderness. Norm, described as being in his forties, funds the collective through a large sum of money that he came into. This is just one of many contradictions the book explores, as the members of Drop City seek to escape the material world but are reliant on inheritances and money that they have not earned.
Sess Harder is a thirty-something fur trapper, a call back to the true backwoodsman who lives along a remote stretch of the Yukon River with his wife, Pamela. They both hold the belief that modern-day society is on the verge of collapse, and so they ground themselves in the wilderness, relying on their basic survival skills. Sess is still tormented by the memory of an old girlfriend who deserted him after the remote lifestyle grew to be too much for her to handle. In the back of his mind, he wonders if Pamela will be any different.
Once the group reaches Norm’s promised land, they receive an education in what it truly means to live and die off the land. They experience the harsh Alaskan winter, the dangerous wildlife, and witness the necessary brutality of Sess’s job as a fur trapper. They realize that although they have been seeking to separate themselves from society, they have never known what it is to live in true isolation. They start to doubt whether they can truly make it in a place like this.
In the end, regardless of the differences between the two groups, it seems as if everyone has come to this place to escape from something, a past trauma, an inability to deal with the realities of conventional society. They are all seeking a place to fit in. Unfortunately, each group member of Drop City brings with them their own baggage, making it difficult to truly turn the corner and achieve the care-free commune of their dreams.