July 12, 2004

Book review: On Paradise Drive

By: Joanne McNeil

There is no better example of the upsurge of American middle-class luxury than the trend of books dissecting it. In recent months we’ve seen Trading Up: The New American LuxuryLiving It Up: America’s Love Affair With Luxury, and The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness, all prominently displayed at our neighborhood Barnes and Nobles. It started with 2001’s Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, and its author, David Brooks, is back with another look at popular culture. This time, he cruises past urban areas, in a metaphoric “drive” from the cities into the heartland.

On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense, categorizes our perpetually fragmenting culture as we strive to meet the ideals of magazines like Malt Advocate and Field and Stream. But Brooks reminds readers that Americans, no matter how stratified, have motivations rooted in the same values.

The New York Times columnist and Atlantic Monthly contributor is as funny as he is prolific. This book is laugh-out-loud comical, as he describes the “Ubermoms” that “weigh less than their children,” and price club shoppers that all appear to be having the same conversation, “which is how much they are saving by buying in bulk.”

Brooks is primarily concerned with the suburbs, but not the inner-ring suburbs like Bethesda that are now populated with yoga studios and art-house restaurants. Suburbia has extended out to regions like Loudoun County with “no past, no precedent, [and] no social conventions.”

He also defends our culture from the noxious gaze of French intellectuals. They are on a “safari for puerile paradoxes.” They attack our Elvis impersonators without first reading our great literature or exploring our great cities.

Brooks separates Americans into two groups: the “cosmic blondes” and the “cosmic brunettes.” This is not based on our hair color, or even intellect–it is a description of our disposition and outlook. The cosmic blondes are always sunny; the cosmic brunettes are more introspective. The brunettes are writers, readers, artists–and always critics.

Maybe this is the “cosmic brunette” in me, but Brooks seems to let those blondes off the hook–at least the “vapid” ones. After hearing him describe their “golden retriever”-like vapidity in full detail, it is awfully difficult to give these people any credit, dreamers or not. Salivating over IKEA and J. Crew catalogues isn’t just silly, but–the word that Brooks fails to use–shallow.

Brooks shows us characters that should be already familiar to us, so we can only combine his perceptions with our own. But for that reason it is often hard to accept his airbrushed vision of “buttery chunks” highlights and playgroups. Some of them have dreams, some of them are motivated, and some of them are driven with the same spirit as early pioneers out west to inhabit new territory, like these emerging “outer circle” suburbs. Then again, some of them are failures and slackers.

The moms in Brooks’ world have perfectly sculpted thighs after hours at the gym each day. But America is, by most accounts, getting fatter every year. Surely there are other suburban mothers with high-carb diets, just as there are students who bypass the “achievatron” and flunk out of high school.

His gloss on university life is the most disappointing. Brooks agrees it’s a shame that college students are going through the “achievatron,” jumping through hoops indiscriminately with “little discussion about intellectual matters outside of class.” But isn’t that a little “blonde” of them? After all, they are driven by a nebulous carrot, an incomplete dream that requires stepping out of the “achievatron” for a moment in order to form it. Brooks is far more concerned with their sexual appetites.

In the end he describes successful students as “bright, flexible, responsible, tolerant, broad-minded, nice, compassionate, considerate, and lively.” As a recent college graduate, I’d argue college life is far more cutthroat than in this rosy picture.

Brooks is an essayist and a satirist, not a political scientist–which is why his sweeping observations, unsubstantiated, often fall short. He doesn’t explain how his observations apply to all suburbanites, just as he fails to explain why the traits of achievement and motivation are unique to Americans. His talents would be better applied to character-driven fiction writing.

Brooks would make an excellent novelist, on par with Thomas Wolfe, whom he cites approvingly. He is witty and visionary. Although his definition of the American spirit is uplifting, it’s also unconvincing.

Joanne McNeil is a writer in Washington, D.C. Her website is joannemcneil.com.

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