Boonville is a real place. Tucked between Santa Rosa and Mendocino, it's an Anderson Valley hamlet that, according to Alaska Airlines Magazine, makes for a lovely rest stop during wine-tasting excursions. But in Robert Mailer Anderson's version, Boonville's also a town where burned-out hippie nudists name their kids Radicchio, Friday night fun is head-butting your brother with a 50-yard running start, and morbidly obese feminists scream “I am a radiant being filled with light and love!” as they kick at you with Birkenstock-clad feet. In other words, it's a fun place to visit provided the action's happening to somebody else. The pleasure of Anderson's Boonville is watching the bad-acid activity unfold; it's a sardonic and beautifully imagined first novel, a satire of California that revels in skewering the upstate counterculture.
The plot is rudimentary: John Gibson, a Miami yuppie, comes to Boonville to sort out the estate of his late grandmother — an alcoholic, pot-smoking spitfire known around town for her wooden squirrel carvings. Within 48 hours, John (who's immediately dubbed “Squirrel Boy”) is hung over, beaten, roped into committing felonies, and generally despised by the locals. There are pages of well-tuned humor in Gibson's tale of existential descent — hell, apparently, is other Northern Californians — but Boonville is primarily distinguished by an exemplary eye for emotional detail. Images of John's adult failures collide with those from his numbed childhood, which seems to be Anderson's way of suggesting that maybe the free-love hippie groove was on to something after all. Maybe.