You never know what to expect when you pick up the latest T.C. Boyle novel. The book might be populated with displaced Samurai, itinerant illegal aliens or even a larger-than-life figure like John Harvey Kellogg (of Corn Flakes fame). Boyle is fiction's counterpart to John McPhee, a man of widely varied interests and the talent to write about them all with insight and originality. His newest, Drop City, begins in a Sonoma commune of the same name, circa 1970. For those of you too young (or too old, or too stoned at the time) to remember, the late '60s and early '70s were times of great social upheaval, and northern California was arguably the epicenter. It would be a comparatively simple task to write a book about the culture clash between the normal folks and the hippies, or even a Cyra McFadden-style send-up about life on a commune, but T.C. Boyle has never been one for taking the easy road. Rather, Drop City is a tale of a utopian community riven from within by many of the problems that have plagued "straight" society for ages: drugs, sexism, racism and jealousy.

Meanwhile, in remote Boynton, Alaska, a union takes place between a hermit-like fur trapper and a mail-order bride. The wedding goes superbly (one is tempted to say "without a hitch") until late in the day, when it is crashed by the sworn enemy of the groom, the only person in Boynton who was not invited to the ceremony. Hijinks ensue, and the upshot of the skirmish leaves a team of sled dogs dead, and a pristine 1965 Shelby Mustang GT-350 coupe submerged in the cold deep waters of Birch Creek.

Back in California, the law is breathing down the necks of Drop City's resident revelers. A dead horse, a hit-and-run car accident, and several issues with the building codes department have conspired to draw the utopian experiment to a close. It is time to move on, but where to? You guessed it, Boynton, Alaska, to establish Drop City North. A weedy caravan of vehicles (a dusty Lincoln, a rusty Studebaker, and an elderly school bus) gingerly makes its way across the Canadian border, up the Alaska Highway. It will be a clash of a different sort, as the welfare/food-stamp/peace/love/dope crowd comes into contact with perhaps the most fiercely self-sufficient people the country has ever known.

Boyle's characters, with names like Mendocino Bill, Pan, Star and Sky Dog, are exceptionally well drawn, and the dialogue is eerily evocative of its time. Drop City is a book to be read slowly and savored; it is not about reaching the end, it is about the journey. For best effect, read Drop City in a beanbag chair. A drop or two of patchouli oil and Janis on the stereo couldn't hurt, either.

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