Rhapsody in Red and Blue
A journey along the highways and byways of American identity.
Reviewed by Timothy Noah
Sunday, June 6, 2004; Page BW05
ON PARADISE DRIVE: How We Live Now
(And Always Have) in the Future Tense
By David Brooks. Simon & Schuster. 304 pp. $25
Four years ago, David Brooks published Bobos in Paradise, a captivating book about the convergence of bohemian and bourgeois cultures. The trend had been noted before. Indeed, an entire magazine, the Baffler, had been founded largely to decry it. But where the leftist Baffler savaged the hypocrisy of Baby Boomer capitalists who styled themselves counterculture rebels, Brooks, a conservative, invented an affectionate nickname for these bourgeois bohemians ("bobos"); lampooned them wittily but gently; and pronounced them harmless and in some ways actually beneficial to the common weal. This upbeat diagnosis made bobos feel better about themselves, and Brooks quickly became the right's ambassador to the liberal establishment. This past September, the New York Times formalized that role by giving him an op-ed column.
Brooks's new book, On Paradise Drive, has a more ambitious scope than Bobos in Paradise. This time, Brooks is examining all of America -- all of its middle class, anyway -- and he's reaching for a larger theme that will explain how its various subcultures relate to one another. Unfortunately, he never finds one.
That Brooks has not lost his penchant for bemused social taxonomy is amply demonstrated in the book's first chapter, which takes us on an imaginary drive that begins in a prototypical urban core. We travel from the downtown "urban hipster zone," characterized by "a stimulating mixture of low sexuality and high social concern," to the "crunchy" suburbs, where "all the sports teams are really bad, except those involving Frisbees." Then it's on to the pricier inner-ring suburbs, once inhabited by the Republican WASP elite but now taken over by the meritocratic elite, who babble at dinner parties about "the merits and demerits of Corian countertops." Farther on, we find the strip-mall-laden immigrant enclaves and, past these, the postwar suburbs that sometimes seem "shaped more by golf than by war or literature or philosophy." Finally, we reach our terminus at the "new exurbs" inhabited by Patio Man and Realtor Mom, who live in "a 3,200 square-foot middle-class home built to look like a 7,000 square-foot starter palace for the nouveaux riche." It's a beguiling trip, but where are we going?
In the next chapter, Brooks introduces the promising theme that class and cultural warfare never reach a boiling point because America's multiple tribes are only dimly aware of one another's existence. "There is no one single elite in America," Brooks explains. "Hence, there is no definable establishment to be oppressed by and rebel against. Everybody can be an aristocrat within his own Olympus." Whereas the Greeks advised, "Know thyself," the inhabitants of America's "self-reinforcing clique communities . . . live by the maxim 'Overrate thyself.' " This is an amusing and intellectually provocative point, and I briefly looked forward to Brooks taking the rest of the book to elaborate on it.
But he doesn't develop the theme, choosing instead to move on to the more banal point that Americans are full of restless energy and spiritual striving, sometimes expressed through the "mystical transubstantiation" of consumerism, which isn't so much about having what you can afford now as it is about getting rich by working hard so you can have something more luxurious in the future. "We are motivated by the Paradise Spell," Brooks concludes, "by the feeling that there is some glorious destiny just ahead." This sentiment could animate a perfectly acceptable high school class valedictorian speech or, with a few more laughs thrown in, a passable Lake Wobegon monologue by Garrison Keillor. But though he dresses it up with learned citations from many non-obvious sources -- the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann, the radical socialist Leon Samson, etc., etc. -- Brooks simply can't make Jay Gatsby's infatuation with the green light at the end of the pier feel like a fresh new expression of the American character.
Brooks's earlier book and the insightful social and political commentary in many of his magazine essays have led us to expect he would have something more original to say. (In the Times column he is still finding his voice, but it certainly isn't this bland.) I must also confess creeping impatience with his heavy reliance on satirical composites to make serious sociological points. Even Tom Wolfe, who is better at this than anyone else alive, leavens his hyperbolic generalizations with narratives about real people -- in his nonfiction, anyway. In the introduction, Brooks says it is necessary to "speak in parables, composites, and archetypes, for the personality of a people, as much as the personality of an individual, is a mysterious, changing thing." But a little of this goes a long way. When, halfway through the book, Brooks introduces a succession of composite-driven chapters with the aside "Sometimes a little satire is in order," it sounds like an apology.
And while we're on the subject of apologies, what's with Brooks's nervous little joke in the acknowledgments that his wife Jane's "design for our new house made this book necessary"? Is he saying that he's feeling a little overextended and underinspired these days? If so, give him points for honesty. In my characteristically American way, I see a worthwhile book coming out of David Brooks sometime in the future. But On Paradise Drive is a disappointment. •
Timothy Noah writes the "Chatterbox" column for Slate magazine.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company