On Paradise Drive by David Brooks
On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (and Always Have) In the Future Tense
by David Brooks
Simon & Schuster. 285 pp. $25.00
David Brooks appears to be two different people. One is an earnest fellow who writes a semi-weekly column for the New York Times and appears regularly on public television’s NewsHour. In both venues, his political judgments proclaim him to be informed, reasonable, and conservative-but-not-too-conservative (as evidenced in his recent resounding cheers for gay marriage and lots more Mexican immigration).
The other David Brooks—the one on display in this book—is something of a joker. He calls himself a “comic sociologist,” and this implausible label seems about right. It explains the book’s considerable strengths, and may also have something to do with its weaknesses.
On Paradise Drive is a sequel. Its four-year-old predecessor, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, was a best-seller that lovingly but also satirically captured the rise of the “bobos”—the new class of bourgeois bohemians. Brooks was very entertaining on their business lives, their intellectual lives, their spiritual lives. Along the way, he argued persuasively that this upscale cohort defined our age. Products of meritocracy and mass higher education, the bobos embrace American-style success while also gravitating to the values of the 60’s and 70’s counterculture. “They are the new establishment,” Brooks wrote. “Their hybrid culture is the atmosphere we all breathe. Their status codes now govern social life. Their moral codes give structure to our personal lives.”
In On Paradise Drive, Brooks once again takes on upscale America, but now he is coming at it from different angles. He begins at ground level, with an exquisitely nuanced look at several varieties of the suburban experience. Next he serves up, in “Thyroid Nation,” a chapter-length discourse on the energy and mobility of modern Americans, explaining why, in this deeply divided country, class war never really explodes (mainly because you can always move on if you feel oppressed). Then comes an oddball brace of chapters, the first inviting the reader to take a hard look at the two-century-old view of America as a “money-grubbing, empty-headed, shallow-souled, energetic, but incredibly vulgar land,” and the second laying out the opposite view—namely that Americans have always been profoundly spiritual and even today remain somehow connected with the 18th-century idea of our country as a place with a special destiny. Brook’s own preference for the latter version is fairly obvious, but he leaves the issue hanging.
In successive chapters titled “Growing,” “Learning,” “Shopping,” and “Working,” Brooks next resumes his examination of contemporary suburbia. Finally, in “A History of Imagination,” he reverts to several of his earlier themes and—for any reader who may still be wondering about the author’s view of national values-endorses Walt Whitman’s notion “that America is the permanent revolution, that deep in middle-American life, even in the most placid-seeming suburb, there is an unquenchable longing and hope, and it is in committing [ourselves] to far-off dreams that we fight the insularity and the trivialization that threatens to swallow us up every day”
Like the suburban world it describes, this book sprawls. Yet it is extremely readable, and, in Brooks’s hands, comic sociology can be screamingly funny His imagery is fresh and original, and his data are endlessly fascinating. I had not suspected, for instance, that Mesa, Arizona, long identified as a suburb of Phoenix, is now more populous than Minneapolis, St. Louis, or Cincinnati, or that American dwellings offer an average of 718 square feet per inhabitant, far more than people get in any other country.
A highlight of the book is its opening chapter, in which Brooks embarks on an imaginary drive from “bike-messenger land”—one of the new hip bohemian downtowns—to the terrain beyond the suburbs. Every stop along the way is recognizable. First we come to the “crunchy suburbs,” a close-to-the-city area marked by downscale incomes, progressive politics, organic cauliflower stands, nuclear-free-zone declarations, and an overrepresentation of men looking like Allen Ginsberg. Next is the inner ring of the “real suburbs,” once occupied by Ozzie and Harriet but now dominated by highly educated characters with $250,000 salaries and left-liberal politics who disdain suburban materialism but have somehow ended up with Olympic-sized Jacuzzis—crisply summarized by Brooks as “the emblem of their great sellout”—in their master-bathroom spas. Driving out from these inner-ring suburbs, we arrive at the immigrant enclaves that lie along ugly eight-lane turnpikes and feature grungy convenience stores advertising DynaSky calling cards to Peru. Then come the traditional suburbs, still exuding a whiff of good old Eisenhower America, still raising cheerleaders and trick-ortreaters, and still deeply, blissfully committed to golf.
Finally, we reach the exurbs: formless, fantastically proliferating communities, often spreading into deserts and countryside or snaking between valleys. Many did not exist ten years ago. They have been built, Brooks tells us, “to embody a modern version of the suburban ideal.”
The differences between suburb and exurb are instructive. Whereas, in today’s suburbs (as defined by the Census Bureau), only 27 percent of the households are inhabited by married couples with children, the exurbs tend overwhelmingly to have intact two-parent families and low divorce rates, and they do not have to worry about crime. Their denizens are also more apt to be corporate managers than professionals—a distinction that means they are far more likely to vote Republican and think conservative, and possibly to have moved out here to get away from lowlifes, immigrants, and people who watch daytime reality TV.
Signaling that he has now reached a group of maximum interest, Brooks suddenly sets aside the statistics, puts on his comic-sociologist hat, and zeros in on an emblematic exurban couple whom he identifies as Patio Man and Realtor Mom. We spy on Patio Man, his eyes glistening in a Home Depot megastore as he buys a megagrill on which he could roast a bison. We ogle Mom shopping at a Wal-Mart Super Center, a monster emporium offering laundry detergent in 41-pound tubs, frozen waffles in 60-serving boxes, and Q-tips in packages of 1,500—that’s 3,000 actual swabs, Brooks points out, since there is cotton at both ends. Exiting their separate stores, Realtor Mom and Patio Man spot each other in the parking lot, drive home in their separate cars, babbling away on their separate cell phones, and, aroused by their consumer triumphs, make for the master suite to consummate their reunion on an Ethan Allan Utopia settee.
David Brooks has his weaknesses. His wordplay is dependably beguiling, but one senses that he is less comfortable with numbers. A numbers man would not tell us, with imprecise precision, that the proportion of Americans believing in heaven is “about 86 percent.” Nor would a quantitatively oriented (and possibly humorless) sociologist write a sentence like this: “High-achieving parents are marrying each other and breeding kids who are high-achievement squared, who will in turn make a lot of money and breed their own kids who are high-achievement cubed.” The numbers man would have heard about regression to the mean, a statistical phenomenon telling us that the children of high-achieving parents are predicted to be less high-achieving.
A more serious matter is the book’s lack of any main point or center. On Paradise Drive has no real counterpart to the bobos, who imbued Brooks’s earlier book with a focus and an organizing principle. Given their supposed centrality in American life, it seems strange that the term is nowhere mentioned in this new book, and similarly near-invisible is the associated thought that upscale America is itself increasingly bohemian.
It is understandable that authors (and publishers) do not like to be seen as recycling old material. Still, the contrast between Brooks’s two books is jarring. When Bobos in Paradise got around to the subject of American business, Brooks had a lot to say about “countercultural capitalists” and corporations whose charismatic leaders were possessed by social missions. The corporate bosses in On Paradise Drive—we meet many of them in the “Working” chapter—turn out to be dowdy guys in dowdy companies who became winners by concentrating obsessively on a few small things they can do better than anyone else. The rain forest is not in the picture.
I have already suggested that On Paradise Drive wanders all over the lot; this, too, presents a problem. Its shifting topical themes often seem determined less by any large thesis than by a subject’s comic potential. The chapter titled “Shopping” is less about the activity of shopping than about the dumb stuff to be found in consumer magazines: Metropolitan Home, Field & Stream, Food & Wine, and onward to Cigar Aficionado, Guitar Player, and Malt Advocate (a quarterly targeting readers serious about their beer and wine). One might wish to learn something about the market economics driving these niche magazines, but Brooks settles for laughs, idly inviting the reader to wonder about such possibilities as ToughGums (“The Magazine for Frequent Flossers”) and Pluckings (“The Magazine of Tweezer Enthusiasts”).
But I do confess to chortling again, and also to hoping that comic sociology has a serious future.