SINCE THE MID '60s, it has become increasingly difficult for young adults to examine their values in light of traditional models. Refugees of the Woodstock Nation -- who were perhaps too quick in renouncing all worldly possessions -- slipped into the '70s with a clear conscience and bequeathed to younger brothers and sisters their concept of the future. Instead of disciples, however, they fostered a petulant generation dedicated to the accumulation of real property, and suddenly it was time for them to regroup in order to claim their piece of the rock.
Now a decade later, the gold rush has gradually subsided. Former hippies control suburbia, hold responsible jobs and trust absolutely no one under 30. This is an ironic postscript to the cultural revolution and one that would undoubtedly bring a smile to the lips of Veblen and Marx. But it doesn't reflect the idealism that fueled the American dream of the '60s, and this has created something of an identity crisis.
"The people we've become," says journalist Sara Davidson in her new book, "retain an awareness, however faintly it is pulsing, that the acquisition of material wealth does not necessarily bring satisfaction, but that awareness is fading rapidly into unconsciousness."
In Real Property, a collection of her essays (published individually between 1969 and 1979), Davidson appears to be searching for alternatives, a re-definition of the contemporary values and lifestyles that seem to fluctuate as wildly as the economy. Thus, she visits with Ozzie and Harriet Nelson in an effort to probe the perfect nuclear family, only to learn of its demise. A Berkeley homecoming prompts a reunion with has-been activists who mourn the passions of the '60s and see, in the Symbionese Liberation Army, the "bygone days when you marched for the downtrodden, the poor, the blacks." A study of communal living -- in the guise of "open land" deeded to God -- produces nothing more than a microcosm of rural America in the throes of its own growing pains. "I suppose our commitment wasn't that sincere," she laments, but is nevertheless careful to leave the door open for debate.
These are all entertaining -- and, at times, absorbing -- sketches of disillusionment. They manage to shine through the layers of shellac with which most of us have coated the decade. The soul of this book is Davidson's own coming-to-terms with a past that has obviously haunted her. Having concluded (in the opening essay) that today, at 35, she "was still waiting, expecting that [she] would soon wake up from all this," Davidson embarks on a spirtual catharsis, triggered by people and places she has written about. Reading the pieces is like watching a grown son who discovers a treasure of self-revealing secrets in the scrapbook you've kept for him.
A roller-skating actor on the bench at Venice, an Israeli explorer, and a bigamist with 10 wives' help Davidson reflect on a failed marriage. At the same time, she borrows from their personal experiences to learn more about a man's struggle for success. This is the type of informative, balanced journalism Sara Davidson practices throughout Real Property. A chronicle of Chile under the Allende regime becomes "a reflection of the hopes and moods of the country," rather than an indictment; Jacqueline Susann's vibrance and determination are permitted to offset her decided lack of talent.
Davidson listens well and approaches each of her subjects with an open, almost naive sensibility. She is eager to get the whole picture. More importantly, she interprets what she bears with a keen understanding of our turned-on times and a certain degree of sanguine expectation. One ran almost hear her imitate a friend in the book who slams his hand on a chair and says: "There's still a part of me that feels the need to do something right now."