Another T. C. Boyle novel and another winner as far as I'm concerned. Like every other novel of his that I've read, this one is about two groups of very disparate characters who come in contact with one another—this time a group of communal hippies at the end of the 1960s and the simple and survival-focused folk who live in the Alaskan wilderness. Their clash of worldviews is both brutal and entertaining—in the traditional Boyle style—and is well foreshadowed in this interchange from early in the novel between two of the hippies before they make their journey to Alaska.
And then Alfredo was onto travel, the names of places clotting on his tongue like lint spun out of a dryer, no two-thousand pound Wisconsin cheeses for him—it was London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Venice, Florence—he was an art student at one time, did Marco know that? Yeah, and he'd sketched his way across Europe, from the Louvre to the Rijksmuseum to the Prado. That was the only way to do it, like a month in every city, just living there in some pension or hostel, meeting people in cafes, scoring hash on the street and going straight to the bakery after the cafes close for your pane and your baguette. He must have talked without drawing a breath for a solid fifteen minutes.
Somewhere there, in the space between Amsterdam and the Place de la Concorde, the crows started in, a bawling screech that came out of the trees and circled overhead as the big glistening birds dive-bombed an owl they'd flushed from its roost. "The owls get them at night when they're helpless, did you know that?" Marco said, glad for a chance to change the subject. "That's what that's all about. Survival. And imagine us—imagine if there was another ape species here to challenge us, and I don't mean like gorillas and chimps, but another humanoid."
Alfredo didn't seem to have anything to say to that—he believed in universal harmony, brotherhood, vegetarianism, peace, love and understanding. He didn't want to know about the war between crows and owls, let alone apes, or the way the crows mobbed the nests of lesser birds—sparrows, finches, juncos—to crush and devour the young. That had nothing to do with the world he lived in. "Heavy," that's what he he said finally. Heavy.
Marco is a character I really like in this novel. He's one of the few hippies who actually take to the rough and difficult life that's waiting for them when they get to Alaska, finding in it something more compelling than all the free love and drugs that permeate life at Drop City (the commune). And in Marco's journey from one world to the other we see Boyle exploring some new themes in his traditional clash of cultures narrative. Unlike some of his other novels, what starts out in stark opposition to one another in the end becomes so intertwined that they can no longer be separated.
A couple other tidbits I wanted to make note of. First, from Sess Harder, the original man of the wilderness, speculating on whether his new wife will have the stamina of will it takes to endure the long and dark Alaskan winters.
Everybody wanted out when the night set in, the night that never let up, when the cabin walls seemed to shrink till you felt like you were in one of those Flash Gordon serials where the walls came together like a vise to squeeze the pulp out of you. Flash always managed to escape, though. So did the better part of the women who came into the country, which was why there were three bush-carzy bachelors for every female in Boynton. The night took inner resources, and most people, women especially, didn't have anything more than outer resources to keep them going—shopping, gossip and restaurants with sconces on the walls, to be specific.
This is very much a novel about inner resources, and those who have them—hippie or otherwise—survive. It's also a novel about those who live by a code, and the need to stay true to it even in the harshest conditions.
She hadn't heard. She knew the nephew was gone, and the little pie-face with the false eyelashes, and a handful of them kept pestering Sess—they'd pay him anything, whatever he wanted—to mush them and their guitars and she didn't know what else on into Boynton. And he was willing, why not, cash was cash, but the trapline came first because once you set those traps you were obligated by every moral force there was in the universe to tend them, if only to curtail the mortal suffering of the living beings that gave you your sustenance, because you didn't waste, you never wasted—waste was worse than a sin; it was death.