On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense
Four years after the publication of his brilliant and very funny manifesto Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, self-described “comic sociologist” David Brooks is back with On Paradise Drive, in which he returns to plumb the depths of the suburban middle and upper class. But where Bobos was insightful and even groundbreaking, the unwieldy subtitle of this book unfortunately reflects its clumsy approach. On Paradise Drive is a vague mishmash of suburban social and demographic statistics disguised as an investigation into Americans’ characteristically striving nature.
Brooks gets off to a good start with an imagined ride from the city of Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class, through the tony first-ring suburbs, then the vast expanse of surprisingly diverse suburban sprawl, and finally to the exurban hinterland of NASCAR dads and xenophobia. Brooks proved in Bobos that he has an eye for the vernacular details that compose our lives, noting how Starbucks and Anthropologie define the people who live in a place like Georgetown, while Golden Corral is a significant landmark in exurbia. In the first chapter of On Paradise Drive, he exercises that eye with much mirth, describing white urbanites with “dreadlock envy” and “Crunchy Cons . . . [who] read Edmund Burke while wearing Swedish clogs.” This is, after all, the writer who coined the phrase “Bourgeois Bohemians” (“Bobos” for short) to describe the kind of consumer-oriented, hypereducated former hippies that keep J. Jill and Smith and Hawken in business.
But then something goes wrong. Brooks gets hung up on statistics (he confesses a love for American Demographics magazine) that don’t seem to relate to any thesis. Often they actually contradict each other. He wanders off on boring tangents about niche demographics—cigar aficionados, pen enthusiasts—and his knack for granting pithy names to trends and social groups (a knack he claims most sociologists and demographers don’t possess) goes haywire, as when he spends entirely too much time on a fictional management concept he dubs “Find Your Fry!” And his name-dropping (the Dismemberment Plan gets a shout-out, in an uncharitable but painfully accurate screed on alternative weekly newspapers) gets annoying quickly. It’s as if he gets carried away by his own wit.
Brooks’ case is not helped by the fact that, as a frequent New York Times Magazine contributor and one of the few conservative members of the Times’ op-ed corps, much of the material in this book has already been aired in that paper. Even new material feels stale, albeit dressed up in the author’s signature zingy language. A chapter on the sex lives of college students, meant to illustrate the “just go, just get ahead” fervor of Gen Y, reads like a slightly lecherous retread of a Newsweek cover story. By the end, Brooks is toeing the conservative party line circa 1981, basking in a banal, Reaganesque zeal for the “hopeful” spirit of America—a quality he extrapolates from Americans’ naked consumerism—and halfhearted pop sociology has given way to sweeping generalizations about no one in particular.