Sunday, June 15, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #165: The Baby Boom by P.J. O'Rourke

A memoir is typically the story of the writer's own life -- sometimes researched, but not necessarily. A memoirist can just put down things as he remembers them, and trust that his publisher's lawyer will keep him from getting into too much trouble. A social history, on the other hand, usually requires some research, to cover an era or style or movement or time in greater depth, to get multiple perspectives on the thing to be written about, and to justify that word "social."

P.J. O'Rourke's new book, The Baby Boom, is a memoir hiding in very flimsy, diaphanous social history clothing. As always, nothing outside of O'Rourke's head is quite as fascinating to him as the things inside it, and so we should all have expected that his history of the Baby Boom generation would be entirely about young men who grew up in small Ohio cities, went radical when that was the thing to do, and tacked back to the Republicanism of their forefathers as they got older and more tired. And, as we also should have expected, O'Rourke's way of writing about his generation is by assuming that he's absolutely typical -- you'd think he would have realized over the past sixty years how idiosyncratic and untypical he is, but evidently not -- and writing through hazy memory and rose-colored glasses about his own life while substituting "we" for "I" throughout.

(O'Rourke is a intermittently brilliant writer, though the intervals are getting longer and longer these days: I've previously written about his past three books -- Holidays in Heck, Don't Vote: It Just Encourages the Bastards, and Driving Like Crazy -- in this space. He's at his least brilliant when he's at his most lazy, and the very laziest kind of book is the "gosh, wasn't it just swell when I was a kid" book. So expectations should not be high for The Baby Boom, despite the glowing quote from close friend and fellow boomer Christopher Buckley, who should know better. Speaking of tedious glurgy boomer memoirs, at least The Baby Boom is notably less self-indulgent than Bill Bryson's saccharine-coated helping of codswallop, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. But that's a very low bar.)

O'Rourke has done no research on his generation, and possibly didn't even talk to other boomers while writing this book. (He's squirreled away up in darkest New Hampshire these days, with a non-Boomer wife and several offspring, the better to write ringing paeans to the Ohio lands he probably hasn't been back to in decades.) He does start off with an attempt to break the boomers into cohorts -- "seniors," like himself, born in the first few years, and then juniors, sophomores and freshmen, each with a defined segment of that long stretch from 1946 to 1964. O'Rourke spends a chapter developing thumbnail sketches of each "class" of boomers -- one can note here that O'Rourke is yet another thinker who simplifies the entire world to high school -- and then forgets entirely about this formulation for the rest of the book. O'Rourke's account of what all boomers did and thought and achieved will be based on his end of his street growing up, because "we" boomers were all friends with Billy Stumf and Jerry Harris and Steve Penske.

If O'Rourke had been willing to make The Baby Boom a memoir, this would be fine -- we might quibble about how vague he gets, and how he seems to have sandblasted away all identifying characteristics and changed all the names, but we'd be in familiar territory for a memoir. But he wants to tell the story of an entire generation -- seventy-five million people -- when he's not willing to do the slightest work to understand anyone else, even those boys he grew up with in the Ohio town he never names here.

O'Rourke continually narrates what "we" are doing and thinking in The Baby Boom, as if every single boomer -- 1946ers and 1964ers, draftees and conscientious objectors and emigres to Canada, rich and poor, city dwellers and suburbanites and farmers, Ivy Leaguers and high school drop-outs, gay and straight, black and white -- was exactly like him. And that mature O'Rourke voice is smoothly confident and sure of itself, enough that the reader might begin to believe him. But O'Rourke's story is entirely male: he doesn't have the slightest clue what the women of his generation thought about anything or were doing at any given time. (He turns this into a joke a couple of times -- those broads, you know? who can understand them!? -- but it's damning for anyone reading with a careful eye.) And that is enough to finally make the penny drop, for all but the most dull and O'Rourkian reader.

He could have asked some women, of course, but that might have upset his very O'Rourke-centric views of the world. It might have made him think about women as people, not just as skirts he chased and "feminists" demanding things that he laughed at. He could have asked black boomers if their childhood experiences were of halcyon days in a small Ohio city. He could have asked Vietnam veterans what they thought about that war, and how it affected their generation. He could have asked boomers who grew up as dirt-poor farmers, or as rich New Yorkers, or as first-generation immigrants, or came out as gay men before or after Stonewall, if their childhoods were much the same as his.

But he didn't. He didn't ask anyone; he didn't even try to model other people's experiences in his mind. What it is to be a boomer, to P.J. O'Rourke, is to be P.J. O'Rourke, full stop. There is and can be nothing else.

And that makes The Baby Boom utterly hermetic and solipsistic: it's not even really about O'Rourke's life, since he changes names and places and events wholesale. It's an argument that America's biggest, most diverse generation ever is really made up entirely of cranky old white men who agree with P.J. O'Rourke about everything. That, of course, is not true. and so The Baby Boom is a lie and a cheat, two-hundred-plus pages of windy generalities of what it was to be young P.J. in the best of all possible worlds. For those of us who are not now and never have been P.J., it's less than convincing.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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