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Trying to make a perfect society can be such a drag, man

The antiwar movement may be sprouting up again, but there's no climate for flower power this time around. The hippies who led America's last great protests against military intervention have been effectively co-opted by Old Navy, their radical message fermented in the stills of Madison Avenue down to an intoxicating syrup of consumerism. If that weren't enough to shoo the merrymakers off, a couple of major literary authors have recently turned the water cannons on them, blasting away their puka beads with a torrent of bitter satire.

The first was A.S. Byatt's "Whistling Woman" (reviewed Dec. 19), which ended in a conflagration sparked by radical antiuniversity students. And now comes T.C. Boyle's "Drop City," a rebuke of hippie culture that would make Abbie Hoffman put on a tie and write a humble apology on Crane's stationary. There seems little need for concern that the Age of Aquarius will assert itself on anything besides teen fashion, but these authors have assembled a phalanx of commentary to repulse any resurgence of naive optimism.

Boyle has long produced political novels that make you hanker for a good book club. In "Drop City," which portrays a raucous West Coast commune in the 1960s, he shows the same elaborate command of historical detail and social milieu that he demonstrated so effectively in "Tortilla Curtain," which dealt with Mexican immigration into California in the 1980s, and "Friend of the Earth," which parodied radical environmentalists. But "Drop City" may be his most sophisticated work to date because here he seems more willing than ever to let the colorful characters he creates follow their own paths. The social studies final exam questions that risked taking over his previous novels - à la Sinclair Lewis - here recede into subtler and more unresolvable themes.

The story follows the aimless experience of a young woman named Star, who's escaped her stultifying suburban parents in the Midwest to join 60 cool "chicks" and "cats" in Drop City, a free-love commune in California. Their leader, a mildly charismatic trust-fund liberal named Norm Spender, enforces a policy he calls "LATWIDNO" (Land Access to Which Is Denied No One), which reminds one of another two-letter acronym that we can't print in the Monitor.

At first, "this was the life Star had envisioned," Boyle writes, "a life of peace and tranquility, of love and meditation and faith in the ordinary, no pretense, no games, no plastic yearning after the almighty dollar." But when we meet her after three weeks of "grooving" - eating, smoking, and sleeping in one big happy privacy-free family - "she was thinking she'd had enough."

The Drop City commune would be paradise if only it didn't contain any people. Three weeks of flatulent bean stew, drug-numbed headaches, and coerced sex dressed up in the lingerie of free love are enough to soil Star's Edenic dream.

Boyle is a Dickensian genius at the portrayal of hypocrisy. He zeroes in mercilessly on the human tendencies that complicate this social experiment, even while portraying their simple yearnings with real tenderness and sensitivity. Still, no amount of preaching against the constraints of "bourgeois morality" can free these people from feelings of attachment or jealousy. The invitation to kick back and relax does nothing to encourage construction of a badly needed septic system. And Norm's open-door policy inevitably allows some truly frightening "cats" to wander up to the trough.

This is an old tension in America, of course, and American literature. In the 17th century, the New World reignited ancient utopian fantasies that were quickly doused by war, disease, and hardship. And in the early 19th century, Nathaniel Hawthorne was already writing an incisive critique of his transcendental friends in "The Blithedale Romance." Boyle's witty update includes considerably more drug use and sex, but his conservative conclusions are essentially the same: Moral license does not produce real freedom or satisfaction.

One of the novel's most interesting strategies is its surprising shift to Alaska about halfway through, which allows Boyle to demonstrate again his remarkable command of strange locales and characters. When Norm and the clan flee California for the edge of civilization, they eventually run into the last real American man named Sess Harder (Hawthorne would appreciate these names, too).

Sess lives in a little cabin he built himself, three hours by canoe from the nearest town. He's dropped so far out of society that he makes Henry David Thoreau look like a complete sell-out. After a courtship that would seem implausible if we all weren't recently conditioned by "The Bachelorette," he marries a woman who's been looking for a self-sufficient man like him, and the two of them set to work in this unforgiving no man's land.

Of course, what interests Boyle (and us) are the striking differences and ironic similarities between Sess's survivalist holdout and Norm's hippie commune that resettles a few miles away. Once again, the clay barely has time to set in Eden before trouble slithers around both these hopeful homes.

"All the love and truth and beautiful vibes of Drop City" don't generate much warmth at minus 40 degrees F. But Sess's well-prepared dugout can't save him from disaster, either. It seems that no matter how far away people go, there they are. And that's a problem that can't be avoided by brute strength or social reconstruction.

For novels that matter, novels that grapple with the intractable challenge of how we're ever going to get along, Boyle remains one of America's most engaged and engaging authors.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor, charlesr@csps.com.

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