Forgive me if my age is showing, but I was just out walking when from out of the pawnshop down the street came blaring Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," the song that changed hundreds of rebellious lives back in the moldy '60s. And it sounded so fresh, Dylan's urgent vocal propelled so pointedly by Al Kooper's rolling piano backdrop, that I had to stop in my tracks to listen. Boy, does that take you back.
Not half an hour earlier, I was on the phone with that great American writer T.C. Boyle, one of our most elegant phraseologists, talking about Drop City, his ninth novel and the story of opposing groups of back-to-the-land idealists -- drugged-out, peace-and-love California hippies and rugged wilderness folk -- clashing and communing in the wilds of Alaska, America's last frontier. In preparation for writing the book, Boyle notes, he listened to music: "My wife complained that she was awakened in the middle of the night by scratchy, old, bumpy records playing in the den below." But, hey, life was scratchier and bumpier in 1970, when the book is set. Just listen to Bob Dylan and you'll know what I mean.
Different times are perhaps the hallmark of Boyle's tale, a richly detailed saga that, while drenched in the right lingo, with the right book titles on the shelf and just-perfect pop-music snippets intermingled with the narrative, stars a cast of archetypal characters who all manage to come off without a stereotypical hitch -- individuals all in what may have been the last era of the rugged individualist in America. It's the kind of serio-comic work you expect from a storyteller like Boyle, but slathered over with the butter of experience, because Boyle himself is a child of that age. "It's the only historic period through which I lived," he agrees.
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An outgrowth of his last novel, A Friend of the Earth, a time-traveling satire about eco-warriors and civilization's general downward spiral, Drop City might be taken as a return to that story's roots. "With this book," Boyle says, "I felt that maybe I should go back in time thirty years, to when the back-to-the-earth-movement people were less enamored with machines and devices, and see how it would play out. And 1970 was the last time you could homestead in Alaska. It was the last time and place where there were pioneers in America." That creates a launching pad, he adds, for viewing the time from a modern perspective, in a world that's rapidly hurtling toward self-destruction.
A constant scholar of man's place in his historical context, Boyle claims to have unusual prescience as a writer, and that's reason enough to read his new book. "I'm absorbed in what society is going through, and maybe I'm just a step ahead in imagining the worst," he says. "We're living in a time that harks back to the Johnson-Nixon era. 'Peace and love' doesn't sound too quaint anymore in that context."
Boyle's wit and philosophizing will no doubt be front and center when he reads from Drop City at 7:30 p.m. March 24 at the Tattered Cover LoDo, 1628 16th Street; call 303-436-1070 or log on to www.tatteredcover.com. -- Susan Froyd