Saturday, May 29, 2004

When the debates are over about David Brooks’ “On Paradise Drive,” his latest examination of contemporary American culture, and critics cease to ponder whether he has the teeth of H.L. Mencken, the insight of Sigmund Freud, the political dynamism of — depending on your point of view — Karl Marx or Seymour Martin Lipset, and the durability of all of the above, maybe then people will be calm enough to kick back and enjoy his singular perspective.

Writing broad social criticism may seem easy enough in a culture ripe with strip malls, cul-de-sacs, oh-so-hip urban neighborhoods and faux urban neighborhoods that seem to have been created just for our lampooning pleasures. But not everyone has the guts and gifts to contextualize them. Mr. Brooks does. And though he often writes in the schmoozy vein of stand-up comedy, beneath the rat-a-tat-tat of his funny, skewering judgments one can find a coherent — and compelling — theory of life in America today.

“Bobos in Paradise” was Mr. Brooks’ first foray into the kind of “comic sociology” he practices here. It was a bestseller, and in it, he focused on young and anxious strivers born in the 1960s. This time around, the age range appears to be about the same, but the whole of the country — urban and rural, rich and poor — come under his acute but genial scrutiny. Here, everyone aspires and aspires pathologically. And it seems it’s never too soon to start. From Apgar scores to college entrance exams, the young are set along a path of achieving. Babies are rigged up to tapes of Mozart, older children are encouraged to join competitive travel teams even as their weary parents also dream of the best barbecue grills, SUVs and Manolo Blahnik shoes. What is going on here?

Mr. Brooks begins his book with a pleasant invitation: “Let’s take a drive.” The route that unfolds transports readers through the inner ring of the suburbs, to the outer suburbs, the exurbs, the small towns and beyond. Mr. Brooks peppers his drive with amusing statistics: “Did you know that 28 percent of Americans consider themselves attractive (a figure I consider slightly high) but only 11 percent of Americans consider themselves sexy?” He also adds hilarious observations that are often jolting in their familiarity.

His riffs on new parenthood are particularly acute, and brought back memories of my own admittedly goofy ponderings about whether the black-and-white clown mobile would have been a better choice for our infant son’s intellectual development (contrast puts the brain to work, according to the experts) than the pastel duckies I chose.

Midway through “On Paradise Drive,” with the reader tickled and softened up by what is an easy and pleasurable journey, Mr. Brooks introduces the philosophical underpinnings of his book:

“In ‘Character and Opinion in the United States,’ George Santayana argued that Americans go through life with two worlds in their heads. In one part of their brain, they see the real world; but in the neighboring part, they see the perfect imagined world, assumed to be close by and realizable. These two worlds sometimes get confused and intermingle.”

But it is the “perfect, realizable world” that motivates Americans to dream and to strive. Mr. Brooks writes that “An American is thus imbued with a distinctive orientation: future-mindedness.” Thus, the thesis of the book and its subtitle: “How We Live Now (and Always Have) in the Future Tense.”

Mr. Brooks avers that there have always been thinkers who have sought to explain behavior largely by “hard” and “scientific terms.” Here he singles out Freud, Marx and Adam Smith. He continues, “Yet there is something else out there, some religious or mythical or metaphysical yearning that refuses to die and that shapes everyday life in ways that cannot be predicted easily by journalists, social scientists, or even philosophers. Writers in this second tradition of writing about America — and I am thinking about Barzini, Santayana, and above all, Whitman — sense the religious impulses that infuse American society, but they don’t quite lay it out for us.”

In other words, the key to the life of the proverbial “impatient and enthusiastic” American is yet to be revealed. Enter Mr. Brooks. For him, understanding Americans means knowing that they operate under something he calls the “Paradise Spell,” a fantasy of future bliss that motivates them in myriad ways to take on myriad possessions or projects of improvement.

He returns again and again to this thesis, drawing on the words or workings of an arsenal of superstars that includes among others John Updike, Thorstein Veblen, Christopher Lasch, Henry Adams, Winston Churchill and Martha Stewart. Yes, Martha Stewart.

So, despite what other world powers may think of our crass and unbridled ambitions, America keeps growing and growing well. The incandescent American drive that forms the American character, which has been acknowledged since our nation’s founding, is distinctive and unmatched. The book evolves from a tour of strip malls and food preferences to a tour of the American spirit. It is intoxicating and it is good.

In the end, it may all boil down to shopping, an activity that can “set off a dream that is actually revealing and true.” Mr. Brooks quotes this passage from Virginia Woolf’s short story “The New Dress,” in which a woman tries on a dress:

“Suffused with light, she sprang into existence. Rid of cares and wrinkles, what she had dreamed of herself was there — a beautiful woman. Just for a second … there looked at her, framed in the scrolloping mahogany, a gray-white, mysteriously smiling, charming girl, the core of herself, the soul of herself; and it was not true vanity only, not only self-love that made her think it good, tender and true.”

Mr. Brooks notes that “in this moment, the woman sees her truest and best self, which does exist deep down.” I would add that with this fine book, he does the same for America, showing how we are more than what we acquire — or hope to.


By David Brooks

Simon & Schuster, $25, 304 pages

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