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On Paradise Drive by David Brooks
On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (and Always Have) in the Future Tense
Simon and Schuster, 2004
(304 pages; $25.00, hardcover)
reviewed by John C. “Chuck” Chalberg
David Brooks is at it again—sort of. In his first book, the New York Times columnist and self-proclaimed “comic sociologist” examined the highly materialistic lives of post-sixties bourgeois bohemians; hence the provocative Bobos in Paradise. This time his targets are the residents of America’s “paradise drives,” or the exurbians of the wholly new communities that “arise out of nothing” beyond the suburban rings that surround our urban cores.
First there was the smirking David Brooks, who mocked the shallowness of the sixties generation and the “bobos” who would follow in their designer sandals. Now we have a more sober-sided David Brooks, who is bent on unearthing the depths beneath the well-fertilized soccer fields, golf courses, and lawns of these “sprawling communities.”
While Brooks may be sober, his subjects, at least figuratively speaking, are not. Borrowing from G. K. Chesterton, Brooks agrees that Americans are “born drunk.” Fortified by this ultimate in home brews, Americans are not just ready to dream the American dream, but to live it as well. For Brooks’s exurbian subjects, this means many wakeful hours of hard work and hard play, as well as an occasional wakeful hour spent in the “imagined land of the future.”
If “bobo” captured Brooks’s first prey, “so-so,” as in soccer sophisticates, might do for these exurbians for whom work and play are virtually interchangeable enterprises. “So-so” also captures Brooks’s ambivalence about a subset of Americans whom he gently ridicules and yet quietly admires.
Perhaps that ambivalence is traceable to Brooks’s self-deprecating self-awareness. The author who saw a piece of himself among the “bobos” now looks into his own garage and sees a “vast landscape of protective gear,” the better to face life as a parent when dangers lurk on paradise drive. By his own rueful admission, David Brooks’s nine-year-old daughter is already a “four-helmet kid.”
The question that drives this book is not whether America’s children are over-protected, but whether Americans in general are as shallow as we appear to be. Brooks thinks not. And while we’re at it, the question that hovers over this book is this: Is America doomed to decline and fall? Once again, Brooks thinks not. Or at least not any time soon.
Conventional wisdom and classical morality have it that money first enervates and then eventually corrupts. Not so in America, responds Brooks. Here “success is never good enough [and] competition never stops.” This is especially the case in exurbia, where the future is always now—and now is always some time in the future.
When describing life on paradise drive, Brooks cannot resist a few smirks. He finds “Ubermoms” into “conquest shopping” and on a “war footing” when it comes to child rearing. Their men are given to “false modesty,” at least until middle age, when they are free to morph into an “I’m As Obnoxious As I Want to Be” version of Bob Knight or Bill O’Reilly. That leaves the over-protected children, who are showered with “food, shelter, and applause,” whether they are boys who resemble “skateboarding Bedouins” or girls who dress like “preppy prostitutes.”
And therein resides the incubation of larger problems to come. In his effort to find meaning in our effort and comfort-driven lives, Brooks is all too comfortable with the subject of sex and much less comfortable with religion.
Brooks’s travels have taken him to college campuses, filled as they are with bobo offspring who aspire to be tomorrow’s so-sos. To a forty-something Brooks, the most striking difference between his college days and today is the “self-confident” female student, who exudes assertiveness in her intellectual, athletic, and social lives.
The last leads Brooks to comment on what he euphemistically terms “changing courtship rituals.” The near-complete absence of any such ritual would be more like it. Enter another Brooksian euphemism, namely, “prudential sex.” Whether calculated or casual, does the greater promiscuity of the new coed bother Brooks? Not really.
His instinct, rather than any solid evidence, tells Brooks that campus sexual activity has leveled off and perhaps has even declined. Thankful for small favors, Brooks takes too much comfort from too little evidence that the sexual revolution has been tamed. Besides, what strikes him as acceptable today would have shocked Americans of not all that long ago.
What is worrisome to Brooks is less the presence of youthful sex on college campuses than the absence of any concern for character formation on the part of their elders. Here students are left entirely on their own. Which means that when it comes to sex (but not smoking), they are left very much on their own, save for how to practice “safe sex” and, when that fails, how to find their way to the campus clinic.
Does religion play any role in collegiate character development? Here Brooks’s shrug-of-the-shoulders guess is less a hope than a maybe. He claims to have discovered that it is “somewhat fashionable to be religious” on today’s secular campus, as long as “one is not militantly so.” What this might mean or portend remains unclear and unstated. If Brooks is suggesting that one needn’t take religion all that seriously, now or later, then the good life on paradise drive is ultimately doomed.
Brooks, however, avoids all dark thoughts about this as he plunges into his real topic, which is the fever-pitch energy and religious-like fervor that drives so much of our work lives and play lives, whether one already lives on paradise drive or strives to establish residence there. Ah, this inevitable, even eternal matter of striving. Here the subtitle of the book is instructive: “How We Live Now (and Always Have) in the Future Tense.”
Living in the Future
Brooks might be embarrassed by the comparison, but his defense of the striving American approaches a Calvin Coolidge-like idealism. Coolidge has been roundly condemned for preaching that the “chief business of America is business.” But context is everything.
That line is contained in a 1925 speech to newspaper editors. In it, the president actually criticized those who would believe that Americans are “entirely absorbed by material things. We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things we want much more.” After all, the “chief ideal of the American people is idealism.” David Brooks could not have stated it better.
But if Calvin Coolidge is the epitome of cool optimism, Brooks is bubbling over with doubt. In a very real sense, this book exemplifies what its author has detected in our past—and our present—namely, a “ tremendous strain of anxiety” running through our history. At its core is the fear that “if we Americans fail, then that will be the most terrible failure in human history.”
That fear is every American’s fear, David Brooks included. Good American dreamer that he is, Brooks prefers to hope for a different outcome, even as he concedes that hope can be a “trickster.” Still, for now and forever, Brooks is willing to bet on this shaky trifecta: our anxiety, our materialism, and our individualism. What he seems to be saying is that we will not fail as long as we worry about the possibility of failing—and we will continue to be idealistic so long as we think we are idealistic.
Or, as Brooks puts it, Americans are “driven to realize grand and utopian ideals through material things.” And how do we obtain material things, if not through “individual betterment”? When all is said and hoped, what matters most in David Brooks’s America is the “advancing self, not absolute truth.” Ultimately, each American, whether or not he lives on paradise drive, believes that “what works for me is valid.”
This may well be a “brutal form of narcissism.” And placing the weight of the American promise on the shoulders of each lonely individual may be too great a burden for any of us to bear. Are we up to the challenge? In the end, all David Brooks can do is hope that a “born drunk” people will remain intoxicated enough to believe that we are.