A tour of immaculate suburbia
Follow Patio Dad and Realtor Mom into their blissful mini-McMansion
The ever lively David Brooks can make you think and laugh out loud, but not necessarily at the same time. A New York Times columnist and a regular guest on "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," Brooks takes the reader on a clever cultural survey in his new book, "On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense."
He doesn't disappoint the summer armchair vagabond, and he turns a bright, if sometimes exaggerated spotlight, on a wide range of peculiarly American lifestyles.
With an eye on the great dispersal going on in America today, Brooks describes a country more diverse than ever, a place where city life and space has been redefined, where exurban sprawls are freed from the gravitational pull of cities. Americans today "don't perceive where they live as a destination," he writes, "merely as a dot on the flowing plane of multi- directional movement."
His tour takes us through cities, inner-ring suburbs, the exurbs, and touches on the rural. And it's easy to find yourself in his comic descriptions, as Brooks offers hilarious sendups of every demographic group and lifestyle imaginable.
Cities, he says, clearly are no longer manufacturing centers, but now all about "the production of cool" - places where it's "more important to one-up your neighbor with an air of exclusivity."
But what's cool has been weirdly redefined. "In the cool zone, people go down to move up. It's cooler to be poor and damaged than wealthy and accomplished, which is why rich and beautiful supermodels stand around in bars trying to look like Sylvia Plath."
He also introduces us to denizens of the inner-ring suburbs marked by "16-foot refrigerators with through-the-door goat cheese and guacamole delivery systems"; the "crunchy" suburban subset, where "96 percent of all children's book illustrators live"; and the inner-ring immigrant enclaves, where houses "have faded pictures of Mom and Dad in China on the grand piano, and Islamic prayer rugs from Lebanon in the basement."
The suburbs, he writes, are like "the ideal world as defined by golf, everything is immaculate." It's a paradise where Patio Man (in righteous pursuit of the perfect barbecue grill) and Realtor Mom ("the bigger the car, the thinner the woman") have achieved "par" through life in their blissful mini-McMansion.
Beyond the satiric humor, Brooks ponders the nature and character of the American Dream, bolstering his analysis with help from various philosophers, essayists, sociologists, and pollsters.
"On Paradise Drive" describes a country where everybody's still moving Westward, (and upward), and reinventing themselves on hope. His is a world where frontiers dominate, and the future - ever just around the bend - is as present with those of us who today drive Humvees and as it was with our forebears who drove Conestogas.
"Americans are bound," he argues, not by a creation myth, but by a "fruition myth." Ours is a place where "prosperity will be joined with virtue, materialism with idealism." Brooks's America is where shopping is "a form of daydreaming," where a work ethic grows out of both "creating oneself through labor - and out of the intoxication induced by plenty."
Like most Americans, Brooks is engaged by the journey, not the destination. Despite his somewhat caustic critique, he recognizes that beyond the superficial exteriors, there's still a "spiritual impulse that is quite impressive and profound." Americans, he argues, "are influenced - far more than most of us admit - by some longing for completion, some impulse to heaven."
Of course, many won't agree with Brooks's heavy leaning on this notion of exceptionalism - an American heritage infused with strains of perfectionism and the urge to self-examine that produces anxiety, where, as he puts it, "everyday Americans are driven to realize grand and utopian ideals through material things."
Nonetheless, "On Paradise Drive" is a tour of the American psyche and its myriad manifestations of some considerable and satisfying force. Like his previous bestseller, "Bobos in Paradise" (2000), many of us, even if not "bourgeois bohemians," will enjoy the ride.
• Jeff McCrehan is a Monitor editorial writer in Washington, D.C.