David Brooks, On Paradise Drive; How We Live Now (And Always Have) In The Future Tense (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004), 304pp.
Whenever I travel to a different country and enjoy a new culture, I experience my distinctly American identity with a new force. I'll often ask myself what part of "me," how I think, feel, act, speak, relate, worry, dream, work, etc., is truly Christian, and what part of "me" is merely American. For all of that, what does it mean to be American? That is the question David Brooks, PBS television commentator and columnist for the New York Times, tackles in this book. In particular, he tries to describe what life is like for upper-middle-class Americans, "the people who hover over their children, renovate their homes, climb the ladder toward success, and plan anxiously for their retirement." If you grind your own coffee or enroll your kids in SAT prep classes, Brooks has you in his social scientific sights. His purview ignores the very rich, the rural, and the poor (for the latter categories read Robert Kaplan's An Empire Wilderness; Travels Into America's Future). He further asks what motivates our mania to work, study, move, play and consume as frenetically and assiduously as we do. Finally, he wonders whether we are as shallow as we sometimes look.
I have enjoyed Brooks as a sensible commentator on television's McNeil Lehrer Report, and I enjoyed reading this book. If you like large doses of good-natured caricature, satire, exaggeration, sarcasm, and generalizations about Americans and life in America, as I do, then you will likely appreciate Brooks's style. His riff on suburban Ubermoms, for example, is marvelous. Ubermoms raise huge sums for school causes, drive monster SUVs, weigh less than their kids, are tech savvy, and entertain with effortless charm and verve. They have children whose first names sound like last names and they use "summer" as a verb. I saw myself in his chapters on how we educate our children, how we work, and how we shop. In addition to his biting satire, he employs a staple of statistics about consumption patterns, how often we move, household incomes, and the like. Finally, Brooks is not all laughs; he weaves into his cultural analysis extensive interactions with scholarly social criticisms from sociology, economics, history, and literature.
America might be the Rhino of the World, as Brooks suggests, a sort of bull in a china shop, or alternately the Global Bimbo that is vulgar, crass and shallow. But that is not all that is true about us. Brooks clearly loves America, and is not ashamed to say so. Whatever its many faults, and it has many, America truly is a place of equality, opportunity, mobility, and dreams about a possible future: "Born in abundance, inspired by opportunity, nurtured in imagination, spiritualized by a sense of God's blessing, and realized in ordinary life day by day, this Paradise Spell is the controlling ideology of American Life" (p. 268). Paradise Drive is a simple read about an important subject by an informed critic.