David Brooks’ latest installment of a genre he calls “comic sociology” is a parody of and paean to America’s “middle to upper middle class strivers.” On Paradise Drive continues in the vein the author, now the other conservative guy on the New York Times op-ed page, established in his best-selling Bobos in Paradise. This time, however, the focus is not on the idiosyncrasies of “bourgeois bohemians,” but the mystery of American motivation as illustrated through the exodus into its final frontier: suburbia.
“We are living in the age of the First Suburban Empire,” Brooks writes. “And what the heck is that?”
To find out, we’re guided on a discursive suburban safari that starts in downtown urbania—where the chief export is “cool”—and out to the sprawling abyss of the new exurbs where big boxes and SUVs dot the landscape like zebras and gazelles on the Serengeti. On Paradise Drive is partly a binge on curious demographics, another part apologia for America’s religion of success, and a happy-go-lucky skewering of suburban types.
Like a Borscht Belt comic trapped in a Blackberry era, Brooks employs a unique phraseology to describe stock suburban characters and the ideologies that inform their parenting, education and spirituality. Take the “Ubermom,” a classic product of the affluent inner suburbs. A former corporate strategist, the Ubermom deploys her energy and $950,000 education to rear young achievers. “Ubermoms are easily recognizable,” Brooks notes, “because they generally weigh less than their children.”
But the Ubermom is merely a byproduct of “the Achievatron,” that is, a “cross generational conspiracy to produce success.” In the Achievatron, American children are more supervised than any generation in history. They study harder, require PDA’s to negotiate their activity schedules and frequently own three separate helmets for sports. In such a context, Brooks’ advice that his own children pursue careers in “play date law” seems less fatuous than frighteningly plausible.
Of course, Brooks’ suburbia is ripe with subsets. The “crunchy suburbs,” for instance, are the domain of NPR liberals. These bulwarks against consumerism are an accepting place where “the energy that once went into sex and raving now goes into salads.”
By contrast, the sprawling exurbs are a culture in which golf is less a sport than a pastoral ideal. In these conservative strongholds (according to Brooks, the exurbs are overwhelmingly Republican while many of the inner-ring burbs have transitioned to Democratic turf), “bitter sarcasm is frowned upon, for it represents a crease in the emotional surface of the neighborhood.”
All skewering aside, On Paradise Drive has a serious point, which is that America has changed radically in the last 50 years. Less to the left or right than to the patios of “golf communities,” in places like Mesa, Arizona, Loudoun County, Virginia—even Missoula. Places that are marked, or marred, with cul-de-sac developments bequeathed with names like “Bella Vista at Renaissance Premier.” (I’m not making that up—it’s in Longmont, Colorado.)
The way a gossip columnist drops names, Brooks drops demographic factoids to illustrate what he calls “the great dispersal.” For instance, in 1950, only 23 percent of Americans lived in suburbs; now the majority do. Ninety percent of office space in the ’90s was built in suburbia, where there’s now more of it than in any major city save New York and Chicago.
Brooks extends these shifts to paint a sketch of the American character, which he sees as possessed of an insatiable hunger for the frontiers of the future, for monomaniacal pursuits of corporate success that often wind up prohibiting the enjoyment of that same success. This, however, is where On Paradise Drive loses focus. An internal migration isn’t necessarily indicative of a national character, if such a thing even exists.
Brooks is an idea guy who trades in generalities, thus the force of his arguments often sputters for lack of evidence beyond the anecdotal. While his satire is original and funny, it doesn’t push his arguments forward.
For all Brooks’ lionizing of the courage it takes to move one’s family to a gated community, the environmental and social problems these cookie-cutter compounds generate are never even touched on. Brooks concedes the exurbs are designed around automotive expedience (lest an SUV ever want for parking), but what does it mean for the people (read: kids) such an experience tends to isolate, or the parents who become chauffeurs. Whether or not Americans are moving to cul-de-sac labyrinths because it fits their suburban ideal, or whether it’s merely an expedient mechanism for developers is never touched on. For a conservative to wax so cynically about the coddled growth machine might, as Brooks would say, create a crease in the (ideological) neighborhood.
On Paradise Drive suggests that the growth of American suburbs is little more than a benign byproduct of America’s collective will to achieve. However, this raises an implicit question: What of Americans suffering from ambition deficiency? What of the folks who merely coast their way into any number of life’s stations, be they crop fields or the White House?
The suburban empire David Brooks seems comfortable painting, with broad elusive strokes, is one stocked solely with products of the Achievatron. One wonders: Has the writer ever met an actual American loser? Perhaps he should. He just might learn something.