Imagine a witty, sharp-as-nails social observer and writer who really could explain that distinctive turn-of-the-millennium American character. Someone who could carve out in funny and painful ways the common thread that unites the majority of Americans.
David Brooks is that person and more. Author of an already respected social commentary called "Bobos in Paradise," a funny and penetrating look at the new educated upper class, Brooks takes a brave stab at defining the culture at large, and does a remarkably admirable job.
Americans are driven to fill their hours and minutes with activity, Brooks says, to spend as if their lives depended on it and then to move in search of a blissful tomorrow. It's this search for this secular paradise, this utopian future, that's at the heart of all those manic, comic and endless American quirks Brooks details so brilliantly.
We as Americans are under the spell of paradise, Brooks believes. Americans are driven by this myth of limitless possibilities, this constant striving toward a dreamike destiny and future that is as unrealistic as it is elusive.
"Born in abundance, inspired by opportunity, nurtured in imagination, spiritualized by a sense of God's blessing and call, and realized in ordinary life day by day, this Paradise Spell is the controlling ideology of American life," Brooks writes.
"Just out of reach, just beyond the next ridge, just with the next home or entrepreneurial scheme or diet plan . . . there is the spot you can get to where all tensions melt, all time pressures are relieved and all contentment can be realized."
If it sounds ponderous, it's an impression that would offend Brooks more than thinking he got it wrong.
He's funny, and that's a big part of his charm. Why do men cultivate what Brooks, in celebratory un-PC-style, calls the "pubic divot, that little triangular path of hair some men let grow on their chins." The jokes keep coming. There's Patio Man "who notes somewhat uncomfortably that in America today the average square yardage of boyswear grows and grows; while the square inches in the girls' outfits shrinks and shrinks."
The Seinfeld moments continue throughout the book. The extended-play version of his super-suburban hero inside the megastore looking for the holy barbecue is worthy of reading aloud. Patio Man is drawn to the Weber Genesis "because in America it seems perfectly normal to name a backyard barbecue grill after a book of the Bible."
But Brooks' accomplishment goes beyond his writing schtick. His tenure as conservative columnist for the New York Times is not unblemished, and his writing and research attract as many critics as fans.
Still, no one does it like Brooks. He has the ability to involve his readers, not just in the engaging and structured discourse of the writing. He also makes those readers find themselves in his book, whether it's Realtor Mom buying frozen waffles in 60-serving boxes and 1,500 packages of Q-tips, or the outer ring suburban dwellers who, rather than stay and fight, "bolt and start again where everything is new and fresh."
Then there are humans as notches on the Achievatron. The unwavering American belief in a better future allows no escape from the achievement ethos.
"Even if you win the race, there is no rest. There is no position you can be awarded that will guarantee you status and respect regardless of your behavior. There is no title you can pass down to your children. Even if your own future is secure, there are still your childrens' futures and grandchildrens' futures looming. The mentality of ascent still has you in its grip. The universe, as they say, is still pursuing its adventures, and you must work to keep your place. We must all, as the Puritans said, continue rowing for heaven."
Brooks' strong affection for his fellow Americans comes through. (How can he not love a culture that brings out his great talent to lampoon?) It's not that we're shallow and greedy, he says. Our quest for the material perfection of the perfect SUV cup holder has an element of enchantment. There's a spiritual longing to this unquenchable energy to master the inconsequential elements of life.
Born in abundance, Americans believe their version of paradise is a calling that the rest of the world needs. That utopian fire redeems its people, despite the crass and cynical realities, Brooks says.
Here's a roadmap, Brooks is saying. Keep laughing, but use it to see whether the final destination is the place you wanted to end up all along.
On Paradise Drive
By David Brooks
Simon and Schuster
352 pages, $25
Charles Anzalone is the editor of First Sunday Magazine.