December 11, 2013

A self-absorbed look at a generation

By P.J. O'Rourke
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Most of us believe that our generation (whichever one it was) flourished during a particularly golden moment in history and that the world would profit greatly from knowing more about it—and us. Individually, we’re pretty sure that we—personally—are the best examples of our time-stamped cohort. These notions go a long way toward explaining why P.J. O’Rourke now favors us with his recollections and appraisals in The Baby Boom: How It Got That Way (And It Wasn’t My Fault) (And I’ll Never Do It Again).

The book is neither a social history nor a memoir, although it partakes of both. Throughout, O’Rourke views the baby boomers—which he defines as those Americans born between 1946 and 1964—through his own experiences, those of a middle-class white kid growing up in a white neighborhood in the industrial Midwest. To make himself seem more of an Everykid, he generalizes his background. Instead of identifying his hometown as Toledo, Ohio, for example, he describes it so impressionistically that it could be virtually any town that has hot summers and cold winters. As he recalls it, his was an idyllic existence: chums, sports, church, Scouts, mischief and a dawning awareness of girls.

He’s similarly coy about specific names and places as he advances through life. Rather than speak of attending Miami (Ohio) University and Johns Hopkins, he dubs them “Mediocre State University” and “Ivy Wannabe University,” a device that will surely induce wincing at the alumni offices of both schools. O’Rourke looks out from his comfortable early life to a culture that’s becoming increasingly homogenized through television and pop music. Then he and the rest of his peers are plunged into such generationally unsettling developments as the Kennedy assassination, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War and easy access to drugs and sex. For his part, O’Rourke drifts to the political left, luxuriates in the sex and drugs, dodges the draft, dutifully completes graduate school and then becomes both a cultural observer and shaper.

Although he tosses in a few statistics and sober observations to give his assessments an intellectual base to stand on, O’Rourke largely goes for the laughs. It’s like he just can’t help but be arch and amusing—and to hell with the rigorously analytical. And, man, is he quotable! “Scouting is Sunday school with mission creep,” he observes. Or how about this echo of Hunter S. Thompson? “A lifetime of drug dependency and squalor has its points.” And he can be casually cruel and devastatingly on point: “’Dream big!’ our third grade teacher would say, which was ridiculous coming from someone who ended up teaching third grade.”

The Baby Boom doesn’t so much illuminate the impact of a generation as it does invite the reader to ride along as it accelerates toward self-absorbed senescence

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