DROP CITY

By T. Coraghessan Boyle

Viking. 444 pp. $25.95

The hippie life may have been all about love and beauty, but when you got down in the muck and mire, little was lovely or beautiful about it. This condition, along with the solidly comfortable backgrounds of commune habitue{acute}s, was enough to send the back-to-the-land movement crashing back to the suburban patio some 30 years ago. Forget those spirited harbingers of a life freed from material desire and other Western hang-ups. The earth-worshipping quotations from Thoreau, the mysticism of the Beatles-friendly guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the prankish allure of Ken Kesey's bus -- these all started to look more like empty hallucinations sometime between the Summer of Love and the advent of disco-driven hedonism.

Over the intervening decades, real-life commune members have told tales of lazy stoners who maintained an uneasy inertia in such places, many of which became dumps that were further mucked up by latecomers with serious problems. T. Coraghessan Boyle -- no spiritualist, he -- has listened to them. In Drop City, his ninth novel, Boyle plops a batch of long-haired, freaky people down on a 45-acre ranch in northern California marked by an entrance sign that says: NO MEN, NO WOMEN -- ONLY CHILDREN. His children of the earth, circa 1970 A.D., reduce nature to so much filth and foible, their typical motivation for being at Drop City (as in "drop out," "drop acid") being only to be.

In the Boyled-down version, people who have renamed themselves Star, Pan and Sky Dog deal with backed-up toilets, crab lice, gloppy food, petty hostilities and creepy interlopers. A couple of chapters into this dirty-hippie epic, one wonders what the allure of it all was -- until Boyle reminds us, during the first meeting of the acreage-owning Norm (picture erstwhile Canned Heat frontman Bob "The Bear" Hite) and draft-dodging Marco, as Norm feels out Marco to see if he is Drop City material: "You mean that hippie place? Isn't that where everybody's nude and they just [have sex] and do dope all day long? Is that what you're into?"

But alas, for both Drop Citizens and readers, sex, drugs and rock-and-roll can only take us so far. Boyle's instant community becomes a cesspit of dubious motivation and a fallow field of stock characters. Stereotypes abound, from the haunted Marco to the good, goat-tending Earth mother Star, the randy, voluptuous sensualist Lydia, the selfish and opportunistic user of drugs and people Ronnie (a k a Pan), the rapacious, wine-swilling black dudes and the totally uptight couple that kinda sorta runs the place.

For a novel that could be deemed shocking by some standards -- note the acid-dropping toddlers and the rape of a teen girl -- Drop City has all the predigested passion of a 1970s ABC "Tuesday Night Movie of the Week." Even an absurd accident involving Norm's van, a horse, an old man and his car seems flat and stilted, as if Boyle were pulling yet another Evelyn Waugh-styled gambit out of his moth-eaten derby.

Boyle has already sketched eccentrics (in The Road to Wellville) and '60s student radicals (in his PEN/Faulkner Award-winning World's End) during a career of making mostly middlebrow, page-turning lit. While his Earth children are as predictable as toast, the author's demonstrated talent at fleshing out capital-I individuals announces itself during a parallel plot set in backwoods Alaska. There, Cecil "Sess" Harder, a trapper who lives three hours by motorboat from the nearest town, woos Pamela, a beautiful blonde with a strong back who wants to relive her rugged childhood on the tundra. They find each other after Pamela takes out a personal ad for a woodsy husband. As she makes the rounds of the eligibles around the Thirtymile River, readers might find themselves rooting for Sess -- a powerful but gentle man, a musher who truly lives off the land but, unlike the Drop City gang, never openly extols its virtues.

Then Norm and the crew take a bus, Kesey-style, to nearby Boynton, Alaska, to set up Drop City North -- latecomers who muck things up. The twin plots, once intertwined, never really seem comfortable in each other's company, and the book grinds to a conclusion wrapped around Sess and his arch-enemy and shadow-side, the sociopathic Joe Bosky. Even the exotic chill of Alaska can't save the novel from an untenable flatness. For all its ve{acute}rite{acute} and occasional turn of phrase, Drop City engenders few feelings at all, and that includes sympathy or laughter. It's as if Boyle's band of hippies had embarked on a magical, multicolored trip but forgotten to drop the acid. *

Michael Anft is a journalist and critic who lives in Baltimore.

T.C. Boyle