SHAME ON Donald Bowie's parents.
They let him eat popcorn and candy at 6:30 a.m. while transfixed in front of television test patterns. They provided a rocking chair so he could conveniently lean forward and switch channels. For his 12th birthday they presented him with a "seventeen-inch RCA portable in a copper and white metal cabinet."
Everyone knows that too much television retards a child's capacity to read and write.
Now grown to the ripe age of 31, little Donald has proven everyone wrong by writing a perceptive, entertaining autobiography. True to his roots, his claim to fame is all that time in video-land.
Other autobiographies by young Americans appeared in the last decade, most notably 19-year-old Joyce Maynard's Looking Back (1973). Like Bowie, Maynard described how television distances children from live human beings. She even wanted to change her parents to make them "more normal -- like those families on TV." But no one until Bowie has captured television's phenomenal hold on childhood.
Such permissive viewing privileges as Bowie enjoyed do make him unique, but not nearly as aberrant as most parents would like to believe. The average American child spends more time in front of a television set than in a classroom. Corollary studies document what this does; for example, 44 percent of the 4-to-6-year-olds questioned preferred "TV" over "Daddy." Bowie breathes life into such statistics, and he does it with a crisp style and an impressive memory for the sights and sounds of childhood.
Doody conspiracy." Teachers often looked as though they'd been "squirted in the face by Clarabell," and a complimentary "good hard worker" on his report card was insulting. Hard work indicated infidelity to Howdy. He saw himself instead as "a dreamer. . . . A constant watcher of television."
At home, television's grip was equally tight. "'You should go out and play more than you do. You need more exercise,' his father would say.
"'I should say he does,'" his mother would add. "'He'll turn into a regular hothouse tomato.'"
Little Donald shrugged off his parents' ineffectual carping. Like all video kids, he knew that playing outside was "abnormal" compared with television's treasures. Every flickering image of offered stimulation and companionship. "Buffalo Bob drank milk from a Clarabell glass that grape jelly came in," Bowie writes. "He was one of us."
Station Identification goes out of focus as Donald reaches adolescence. Suddenly, he's no longer a cute, endearing kid, and his story becomes disturbing. All he wants from high school is a "TV Club." His best college buddy equates Nietzsche with George Reeves, the television actor who played Superman. Vietnam only generates fear for Walter Cronkite's safety whenever he reports from overseas. Worst are Bowie's relationships with women. From an early date devoted to Alfred Hitchcock Presents, he matures into obsession with Elly May Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies and reaches full manhood watching late-night movies while a bright, beautiful, disappointed woman sleeps next to him.
Bowie considers none of this disturbing. Rather, he portrays his life as a spin-off from television itself -- a series of nice, little adventures unworthy of comment or analysis. He doesn't even seem embarrassed.
This lack of substance is all the more disappointing because Bowie's tentative attempts at seriousness are provocative. Knowing what to expect on repeats of shows seen during his childhood, for example, leads him to wonder whether "you can go home again."
Like the fictional Binx Bolling in Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, Bowie senses in television clues to life's basic mysteries. (Both Bolling and Bowie equate movies with television: Bolling watches television on evenings he doesn't go to the movie theater, and Bowie loves movies on television.) But Bolling had a definite quest in mind, escape from "the everydayness of his own life." Bowie, on the other hand, just keeps being cute. In the end, he merely acknowledges a "sort of" semi-retirement from television.
Still, this is a valuable book. Bowie captures a slice of childhood shared by everyone who grew up with television (the majority of Americans alive today were born after television became a mass phenomenon). He also speaks for every child growing up right now. Whatever discipline their parents may try to impose, they, too, are video kids.