Anxious Leisure


How We Live Now (and Always Have)

in the Future Tense

By David Brooks

Simon & Schuster -- 304pp -- $25

Reading the first half of David Brooks's witty, lucid, and expansive take on the American middle class, On Paradise Drive, is like cruising around the suburbs with a younger, hipper Andy Rooney in an SUV, didja-ever-wondering at the sights. At some point in the last decade, Brooks writes, "the suburbs went quietly berserk. As if under the influence of some bizarre form of radiation, everything got huge.... The cars got huge...the houses got huge...the drinks at 7-Eleven got huge, as did the fry containers at McDonald's."

Along with the supersizing came a raft of peculiar preferences and preoccupations that Brooks suggests are predictable by Zip Code. For example, he claims people in coastal cities and what he calls "inner ring" suburbs around cities are largely ignorant of what makes vast numbers of Americans light up: NASCAR, the Left Behind book series, Pentecostalism, and the joys of vacationing in country-music mecca Branson, Mo. Inner-ring types, on the other hand, are "people who have developed views on beveled granite." Such people don't want to appear materialistic and vulgar, he notes, but their homes are packed with the toys they've worked their buns of steel off to afford -- everything from heated bathroom floors to fridges with on-the-door nozzles that deliver "goat cheese and guacamole." The point of the idealized suburban life, he argues, is to pattern one's life after the game of golf: To live in neat, tidy, gadget-packed surroundings and work for par -- a state of perfect balance in which anxiety and disorder are mastered.

I chuckled. I winced. I know the targets of Brooks's darts better than I'd like to admit. I've seen that change in the male gait that comes when shopping for a really good gas grill. I've had that conversation with an architect about beveled granite counter edges. The author's observations are laugh-out-loud funny. Take Trader Joe's: Brooks calls it the "morally elevated" grocery store of professional-zone suburbs, designed for "people who wouldn't dream of buying a whey-based protein bar that wasn't fully committed to campaign finance reform."

But then, about midway through the book, Andy climbs out of the SUV (probably for a nice nosh at one of the "heavily themed" suburban restaurants Brooks collectively refers to as Chili's Olive Garden Hard Rock Outback Cantina). In pile social critics and political thinkers, including Alexis de Tocqueville, George Santayana, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. (Fortunately, the newer-model sport-utility attack wagons have plenty of cupholders.) Apparently some time ago these guys saw the roots of our preoccupation with getting the kids into the right schools, our 24/7 technology bent, and our generalized anxiety and future-mindedness. At this point, the book's enchantment fades. "It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once," wrote Henry David Thoreau in 1863, protesting the workaholism of American life. Hear! hear! we nod in the land of par -- and as soon as I can afford that poolside outdoor kitchen complex, I shall elevate my feet and rejoice. But "reformation never comes," sighs Brooks. The American consumer is "an anxious but unstoppable whirlwind."

From this point on, the author delivers an interesting chorus of voices, but somehow it's less thought-provoking than the standup routine that has come before. The second half of the book is filled with enthusiastic observations such as "the redeeming fact about American business is that it is a stimulant," and "Americans have always switched jobs with amazing speed," dutifully backed up by evidence the reader really doesn't require.

Ultimately, On Paradise Drive doesn't rise above pleasant beach-chair fare. Brooks offers a penetrating portrait of the obvious: Americans are hard-working, generally good-natured folks drowning in material goods. They ought to stop and smell the roses more, but they're constantly balancing a wistful desire to do so with the worries of a competitive, uneasy world. His notion that we are inheritors of the philosophy that limitless possibilities are open to us is true but by no means new.

On Paradise Drive boils down to an affirmation for the comfortable. It won't change your life, your outlook, or your travel plans. (If you weren't going to Branson before you read it, you won't go now.) Cockeyed optimists will give a rebel yell; worriers may drink their Big Gulps more quietly. And ideally, the legions of suburban remodelers will tone down their cocktail party chatter to try to sound less like war heroes for completing a renovation project without getting divorced.

By Joan O'C. Hamilton

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