On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (and Always Have) in the Future Tense , by David Brooks. Simon and Schuster, 304 pages, $25.
He’s back again: Intrepid explorer David Brooks has returned from that faraway place known as suburban America, a fantastic land where cars are big, malls bigger and super-value meals tremendous.
His maiden voyage resulted in Bobos in Paradise (2000), a best-seller that wryly mapped the mores of “the new upper class.” He came home with a functional phrase to add to our lexicon: In the style of Thorstein Veblen’s “conspicuous consumption” or Max Weber’s “Protestant ethic,” he brilliantly coined “Bobo,” for “bourgeois bohemian.” He argued that onetime opposite sorts, the “espresso-sipping artist” and the “cappuccino-gulping banker,” have lately converged and landed in a wealthy suburb near you. Before Bobos, there was no easy way to classify a hemp-bracelet-wearing corporate exec who, between lucrative deals, reads Kerouac and sips free-trade coffee. Nor was there a clinical term for, say, me: an Ivy League–educated Bobo who finds her byline in a high-toned publication such as the one you’re reading, but can’t afford even the heel on a Manolo Blahnik (Mr. Brooks’ diagnosis: “SIDS”-Status-Income Disequilibrium Syndrome).
The explorer doubles as social taxonomist: In the time it takes the rest of us to say hi, Mr. Brooks translates a room of people into a diagram of types. Call it, as Mr. Brooks does in his new book, “comic sociology.” A worthy sequel to Bobos, On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (and Always Have) in the Future Tense is engaging, consistently entertaining and occasionally schizophrenic: In his sweeping assessment of that creature known as “the American,” Mr. Brooks pokes with one hand and pats with another.
While Bobos set its sights on one segment of the American class system, On Paradise Drive has a broader, three-part plan: depict today’s middle- and upper-middle-class suburbs; determine what motivates their inhabitants to climb the corporate ladder so avidly; render judgment by responding to a question: Are we Americans “as shallow as we look?”
Why expend energy on a question reflexively answered in the affirmative? That’s the whole point: Time-honored traditions have dismissed suburban America as monotonous and synthetic-think Babbitt or The Organization Man, The Graduate or American Beauty-but Mr. Brooks wants to take a fresh look at the land of wide lawns and narrow minds and then put his finger on the “force” that impels Americans to work harder and longer, wheeling and dealing on their cell phones as they restlessly move here and there in search of success. “How,” Mr. Brooks asks, “does this force-how does being American-shape us?”
Off to the suburbs we go, camouflaged in a minivan driven by Mr. Brooks, at his drollest in tour-guide mode. Statistics are his compass: Noting that half of all Hispanics, 40 percent of African-Americans and 46 percent of those under the poverty line are suburb dwellers, Mr. Brooks does away with the notion that suburbia is white and wealthy. Then he does away with “suburbia,” in the singular: Suburbs come in genres, he explains, arranged in something like concentric circles.
We infiltrate. Exiting the urban “cool zone”-where hipper-than-thou artistes read identical alternative weeklies and suffer from “dreadlock envy”-we enter the “crunchy suburbs,” home to “countercultural urbanites” who’ve become parents (which means “the energy that once went into sex and raving now goes into salads”). Onward to the wealthier “professional zones,” where the mantra is “fight a war, gain a restaurant,” and then the strip-mall-heavy “immigrant enclaves” whose ways have gone “unnoticed by the general culture.” We reach the affluent “suburban core,” home of ultra-organized, hyper-efficient “Homo suburbianus.” Finally, we conclude our road trip far out in the “exurbs,” not a landscape but a man-made “organism” in which demographics flash back to the 1950’s: squarely middle-class families, a matched pair of parents and a couple of kids.
If you’re getting carsick, pop a Dramamine; Mr. Brooks is only revving up. After digging into setting, he hones in on protagonists. “The middle-class suburbanites chased private happiness, but their country has an inescapably public role,” he writes. “They find themselves under attack for reasons they haven’t thought much about. They have to act on the world stage, which is a place that doesn’t interest most of them.” Americans, Mr. Brooks proposes, are the “Cosmic Blonde of nations,” a “thyroid nation” and “bimbo to the world.” We’re “the convertible nation, ripping off our tube tops, yipping like banshees as we cruise down the freeway from cineplex to surf shop.”
Poking fun at the clueless American is nothing new: Henry James did it in Daisy Miller; Nabokov refined the art in Lolita. Mr. Brooks’ jibes are perfectly familiar, especially now that America-bashing has become a global sport. That’s O.K.: Mr. Brooks is a master satirist, and I never tire of his analytical rant. He expertly maps out the American life span, an overactive treadmill he dubs the “Achievatron”: Children, born to “Ubermoms” who pore over play dates and nursery-school applications, pass educational years in pre-professional, grade-grubbing frenzy, after which the lucky ones become “Wireless Man,” scurrying from flight to flight in hopes of doing The Company proud, of earning more and achieving more and simply, well, being more.
Mr. Brooks knows that his account resembles the “chorus of bemoaning” produced by American scholars since at least 1950, that “mountain of cultural pessimism” in which Americans are alternately diagnosed as narcissists or conformists or materialists. As if to avoid being the constant curmudgeon (“I sometimes think I’ve made a whole career out of self-loathing,” he confessed in Bobos), Mr. Brooks hits satirical crescendos but then backs off; he cushions his jabs with a redemptive reading of an America hooked on aspiration.
Sure, Americans can be absurd and fanatical. But in our suburban striving, he continues, you’ll find a “zeal for permanent self-improvement” and a “capacity to see the present from the vantage point of the future.” Mr. Brooks argues that Americans, bewitched by a “paradise spell,” are trying to live out a dream: “I would like to think that an idealist flame does burn in every split level, that everyday American life is shaped by grand metaphysical visions,” Mr. Brooks muses. “I would like to believe that we are all driven by some spiritual impulsion of which we are perhaps not even aware.”
Well, I’d like to believe that, too, but I don’t. Or rather, I’m not completely convinced of it-partly because Mr. Brooks is too skilled a satirist for his own good. His optimistic analysis may have the ring of truth-Americans have long had their heads in a dream-but it’s overshadowed by the preceding pages of potent, tart critique. Like classic American jeremiads, On Paradise Drive speaks doom in order ultimately to speak redemption. But Mr. Brooks’ critical molehills are ultimately more convincing than his inspirational mountain.
In the end, Mr. Brooks seems genuinely torn between the half-full and the half-empty. “If middle America is so stupid, vulgar, self-absorbed, and materialistic, which it often is, then how can America itself be so great?” he asks.
Great in theory or great in practice? In theory, suburban America’s “Achievatron” might just add up to more than cupidity. Our impulse to strive and progress could indeed be touched with glory, and Mr. Brooks’ “paradise spell” could be a Romantic enterprise in which “material things are shot through with enchantment.”
But in practice, the inexhaustible treadmill of American life-not to mention the narcissism and naïveté that fuel it-are anything but glorious. Side effects include exhaustion, imperialism and a shoddy quality of life that’s nearly leisure-free. Living in the future tense might make for a hell of an exciting narrative-but during those moments when you’re not fooled by the promise of a happy ending, it leaves you disgruntled in the here and now.
Baz Dreisinger is a writer and an adjunct professor of English at the City University of New York.