Bye-Bye American Pie


Works discussed:

Blue Sky Dream: A Memoir of America's Fall from Grace, by David Beers, New York: Doubleday, 273 pages, $23.95

The Tortilla Curtain, by T. Coraghessan Boyle, New York: Penguin, 355 pages, $11.95 paper

Independence Day, by Richard Ford, New York: Vintage, 451 pages, $13.00 paper

The Low Life, directed by George Hickenlooper

The Ghost of Tom Joad, by Bruce Springsteen, Columbia

The literary critic Lionel Trilling once suggested that novels "deliver the news," that they tell us "about the look and feel of things, how things are done and what things are worth and what they cost and what the odds are." Novels, said Trilling, encode "a culture's hum and buzz of implication"; they record our daily business of living, loving, working, and dying.

The same holds true for other forms of cultural storytelling, including movies, television shows, and pop music. And, of course, the "news" itself, which employs a wide variety of dramatic forms and techniques even as it strives to represent our world in a realistic, accurate way. All these stories deliver the news by giving voice and expression to our dreams and desires, our cares and concerns.

One of the most popular stories circulating today has to do with a variously described "death" of the American Dream, especially in its "middle-class" variation. All the key words of the pronouncement are fuzzy–What exactly is the American Dream? Just who qualifies as middle class?–but there is a palpable sense that we are living in a barren ruin of a country, a Hooverville from sea to shining sea. If we talk about the 1970s as manic-depressive, vacillating between interlaced extremes of personal gratification and national malaise, and the '80s as years of greed and go-getter optimism, the '90s are shaping up to be the decade of gloom and despair.

As we slouch toward the end of the American Century, the question on every storyteller's mind seems to be, to quote a multi-part series in The Philadelphia Inquirer, "America: Who Stole the Dream?" This sense of pilfered possibilities has a couple of particularly interesting characteristics. First, it represents a broad non-partisan consensus that includes young and old, rich and poor, liberals and conservatives. And it almost always interprets the American Dream in starkly economic terms (hence, CNN's recent shows on "downsizing the dream").

So who stole the dream? The answer, at least from an economic perspective, is: no one. In fact, it's a trick question. As Newsweek's Robert J. Samuelson noted in a recent column, "Statistics implying lower living standards are contradicted by what people buy or own. Homeownership (65 percent of households) is near a record. In 1980, 11 percent of households owned a microwave oven, 37 percent a dishwasher and 56 percent a dryer; by 1993 those figures were 78 percent, 50 percent and 68 percent. People buy more because their incomes are higher. (Statistics understate incomes by overstating inflation's effect on 'real' wages and salaries.) As for anxiety, it exists–and always will. But America is not clinically depressed. The Gallup Poll reports that 66 percent of Americans expect their financial situation to improve in the next year."

The portrait of the country on the verge of–or past the point of–an economic breakdown is an article of faith, not a pronouncement of fact. Virtually all relevant data, such as total compensation, income mobility, job tenure, median household net worth, inflation, unemployment, and educational opportunities, undermine the idea that we are living after the gold rush. As W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm wrote in REASON a year ago, "There are problems in these United States–no doubt about it–but the conclusion that we're not living as well as we once did is pure mythology….Today's Americans aren't orphans of history. Far from it, they are experiencing what previous generations worked so hard to achieve–rising living standards." (See "The Good Old Days Are Now," December 1995.)

Ironically, then, something other than economic privation is driving the market in middle-class despair. As the same story gets pitched at us from the television and the movie screen, the newspaper and the novel, it becomes clearer that the sources for this tale include good old-fashioned nostalgia, selective focus on negative trends, and a profound misunderstanding of the market forces that helped make America a land of plenty in the first place.

Curiously, some purveyors of the death of the American Dream admit that things are not as nasty as they want them to be. Earlier this year, for instance, The New York Times ran a widely cited, hugely influential, and highly arguable series called "The Downsizing of America." Even as the editors noted that the "series…concentrated on the people who lost jobs, not the many more who have gained jobs in a growing economy," they acknowledged that the country's economic system had engendered prosperity and freedom for "almost everyone," that the "United States…is the envy of other industrial democracies because of its recent success in creating jobs and subduing inflation."

Still, it's clear that death, like sex, sells, and the sensibility that the American Dream has come a cropper is ubiquitous even–or perhaps especially–in works whose claim to our attention is their "realism." Last year, for instance, Bruce Springsteen released The Ghost of Tom Joad, an album named for the protagonist of John Steinbeck's 1939 novel of the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath. (Not surprisingly, Steinbeck's cultural stock has risen of late. T. Coraghessan Boyle's recent novel of a maxed-out Los Angeles stripped of all glamour and most opportunities, The Tortilla Curtain, alludes to Steinbeck in its title and opens with an epigram from Grapes.) Tom Joad's title track describes "a new world order" filled with "men walkin' long railroad tracks…shelter line[s] stretchin' round the corner…families sleepin' in their cars…no home no job no peace no rest."

In perhaps the album's best-known song, "Youngstown," Springsteen assumes the voice of an Ohio factory worker who has seen his middle-class existence–and his children's future–end with the closing of steel and iron plants: "Sir you tell me the world's changed…Once I made you rich enough…rich enough to forget my name."

Within months of The Ghost of Tom Joad's release, however, the National Association of Home Builders ranked the Youngstown metro area as the 13th most affordable housing market in the country, even as housing resale prices from 1992-1993 jumped by a higher-than-national-average 7.9 percent; the area was enjoying its lowest unemployment numbers in 15 years; and it squeaked into the Places Rated Almanac's top third of metro areas (114th out of 343) as a place to live. None of this suggests that Youngstown's streets are suddenly paved with gold–or even that it has kept pace with the generally enviable growth throughout the not-so-long-ago rusted-out Ohio economy. But it does suggest that something more complicated than unambiguous ruin is going on.

Tom Joad garnered Springsteen his best notices in years and was widely taken to reflect the plight of "average" Americans. "A state-of-the-union message that you shouldn't ignore," wrote the Palm Beach Post in a typical review. "This land is your land, says Bruce Springsteen on his haunting new record….Ripped from today's headlines, it's a powerful indictment of a lost nation that Springsteen believes is no longer made for you and me."

The notion that these are Dust Bowl days has become a bedrock assumption needing no justification. Hence, The New Yorker, in a capsule summary of the recent Broadway production of Sam Shephard's 1978 play Buried Child, mentions almost offhandedly, "It takes place in the heartland, in the middle of the desiccated wasteland that America has become." A similar mindset informs the recent art-house film The Low Life, whose very title signals dissolution and despair. The movie follows a trio of recent Yale graduates (!) who move to Los Angeles and find that, unlike generations past, the world is no longer their oyster–or even their fried clam strip. "Just arrived in Los Angeles," writes the protagonist John to an uncle. "I'm going to try to be a writer. First will have to find a job. But, unlike a large portion of the newly arrived population, I will not fail." The best John can do is find a series of what pass for demeaning temp jobs: first sorting credit card slips, later working for a second-generation slumlord.

In his positive review, Los Angeles Times movie critic Kevin Thomas was quick to supply the larger cultural backdrop: "In decades past, lots of us with college degrees started out in equally menial positions. But we had reason to be confident that opportunities would open up and that we would eventually move on. With The Low Life, director George Hickenlooper and his co-writer, John Enbom, introduce us to the harsh realities facing young people in today's world of lowered expectations."

This sense of diminished expectations is all the stronger in Richard Ford's best-selling 1995 novel, Independence Day, which earlier this year became the first book to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction–together, an Establishment imprimatur on the death of the American Dream. Independence Day, a sequel to Ford's The Sportswriter (1986), is narrated by divorced realtor Frank Bascombe of the tony community of Haddam, New Jersey (widely recognized as Princeton). The novel chronicles Frank's thoughts and activities over the Fourth of July weekend in 1988. Far from commemorating the country's origins, however, this holiday celebrates the dearth of a nation. Although the novel takes place in the Northeast, the larger setting is an America increasingly beset with fear and loss, largely as a result of what Frank calls "the big gut check of last October"–the stock market crash of 1987.

Everywhere Frank looks, he sees signs the bubble has burst: "high-dollar franchises–places that never staged a sale–have…given way to second-echelon high-dollar places where sales are a way of life"; local stores clear out "under the cover of darkness, owing people money and merchandise"; even Japanese car dealerships go "belly-up."

As a realtor, Frank is particularly attuned to plummeting real estate values–Haddam is a "town in the throes of a price decline." This is a world summed up by the "Just Reduced" stickers slapped on the ever-present "For Sale" signs. Focusing only on signs of distress throughout the economy, Frank fails to note that falling prices may benefit those less well off. Indeed, one of the worst aspects of economic instability is the "different crowd of visitors" it brings to Haddam.

"In the early Eighties," Frank notes, Haddam's "typical weekenders were suave New Yorkers–rich SoHo residents in bizarre get-ups and well-heeled East Siders come down to 'the country' for the day, having heard it was a quaint little village here, one worth seeing, still unspoiled, approximately the way Greenwich or New Canaan used to be fifty years ago, which was at least partly true, then.

"Now those same people are either staying at home in their cement-and-burglar-barred pillboxes and getting into urban pioneering or whatever their checkbooks allow; or else they've sold out and gone back to KC or decided to make a new start in the Twin Cities or Portland, where life's slower (and cheaper)."

In their place is a decidedly more downscale set of folks with bad manners and thin wallets. These "less purposeful…humans…have more kids that're noisier, drive rattier cars with exterior parts missing and don't mind parking in handicap spaces or across a driveway or beside a fire hydrant as though they didn't have fire hydrants where they come from." Rather than spending real money at pricier local restaurants and hotels, they "keep the yogurt franchise jumping and bang down truckloads of chocolate chip cookies."

The first section of the novel revolves in large part around Frank's dealings with Joe and Phyllis Markham, middle-aged ex-flower children fleeing Vermont's "professional dropouts and trust-fund hippies." They want access to "NYC markets" for Joe's pottery and good schools for their daughter. After wading into Haddam's housing market, however, the Markhams find themselves in a "dilemma" that Ford suggests is "the dilemma of many Americans": "The whole country seems in a mess to me," Phyllis confides to Frank at one point. "We really can't afford to live in Vermont, if you want to know the truth. But now we can't live down here either."

Never mind that the infuriatingly clogged traffic on nearby Routes 1 and 27 hardly heralds the start of a new Okie exodus (even if it signals a downturn in local quality of life). Frank prowls the hungry streets of Haddam/Princeton and its environs, documenting the end of the American Dream in a part of the Garden State whose busts are stronger than most areas' booms. The same funereal vision infuses much of the politics, the media, and the popular culture–the psychic imagination of contemporary America.

It is worth pondering why this is so, especially since the death of the American Dream–certainly its economic underpinning–is wildly exaggerated. Why are so many people selling (and buying) a message at so great a variance with shared experience? With regard to journalism, Newsweek's Samuelson contends the explanations fall into three basic categories: sensationalism, ideology ("journalists detest the profit motive"), and ignorance. That's not a bad start at an answer for the larger trend as well.

Part of the reason for the death-knell stories surely has to do with the famous dramatic axiom that Leo Tolstoy enunciated at the opening of Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Tolstoy's point is that there is inherently more conflict and tension–the raw stuff of good dramatic art–built into desperate, forlorn situations (sad songs say so much). The stakes are not only higher, they are easier to understand. The reader, the viewer, the listener needs a rooting interest, and the surest way to an audience's heart is by presenting a sympathetic character fighting the good fight against overwhelming odds.

Ironically, contemporary stories about the American Dream not only exclude the possibility of happy families, they present us over and over with unhappy ones who are unhappy in the same sort of way. But even when such stories are aesthetically engaging and satisfying, such narrative conventions fail to do justice to how the world operates; it is dangerous to view real life through dramatic conventions–the subject of a number of great novels, including Don Quixote and Madame Bovary.

Beyond aesthetic predispositions, however, the myth of a ruined America is wrapped up in an emotionally understandable embrace of a soft-focus past, in which things were more orderly, more honorable, more easily understood–if only because they are a known quantity. Hence, Bob Dole can be "the most optimistic man in America" and longingly refer to his impoverished, war-torn youth as a "better" time for the country. This is, of course, the lament of every generation, and it is not without genuine pathos. The old world forever gives birth to a brave new one marked by strange people, strange customs, and strange developments.

We hear this plaintive echo in the line from Springsteen's "Youngstown": "You tell me that the world has changed." Change, every bit as much as time, has become the thief of hope. Interestingly, the fear of change is not precisely fear of shifting economic tides. Fear of change in contemporary America has to do with a larger dread that the future is building into a massive tidal wave–of immigrants, of information, of postindustrial innovation–that threatens to engulf everything we once called America. The flood waters of an ever-changing world are rising, this line of thinking goes, and soon everything we stood for, everything we lived for, will be a soggy ruin, a latter-day Pompei.

During a moment of clarity in Independence Day, Frank Bascombe muses an analogous thought and puts a telling baby boomer spin on it: "The strongest feeling I have now when I pass along these streets and land and drives and ways and places…is that holding the line on the life we promised ourselves in the Sixties is getting hard as hell. We want to feel our community as a fixed, continuous entity…as being anchored into the rock of permanence; but we know it's not, that in fact beneath the surface (or rankly all over the surface) it's anything but. We and it are anchored only to contingency like a bottle on a wave, seeking a quiet eddy. The very effort of maintenance can pull you under."

A similar sense of exhausting effort and waning community pervades David Beers's Blue Sky Dream: A Memoir of America's Fall from Grace, a book more complex and ambivalent than its subtitle suggests. Born in 1957, Beers chronicles his upper-middle-class youth in California's Santa Clara Valley, made possible by his father's corporate career as an engineer at Lockheed Missiles and Space Co. Beers's family was part of what he calls the "blue sky tribe," benefactors of the Cold War buildup that both poured money into California's economy and, as important, gave disparate people a sense of solidarity and common mission. Unlike today, growth and confidence–"a sensation of forward momentum"–were taken for granted.

Beers stresses that this version of the American Dream–complete with cradle-to-grave job security, steady promotion and raises, and fashionable, ever-appreciating tract housing–was not without costs. His father, Hal, a former Navy jet pilot, chafed against playing the role of organization man, often taking his frustration out on his family, whom he verbally and sometimes physically abused; conformity was rewarded over individuality; innovation was viewed with suspicion.

In its best moments, Blue Sky Dream ponders the ironies of winning the Cold War, which, with the subsequent decline in defense spending, pulled the plug on a sizable portion of the economy, not just in California but throughout the country. (A left-liberal who has worked for Mother Jones, Beers also muses about the fact that he owes most of his advantages in life to a system he deems corrupt and immoral.) Replacing the monolithic, bureaucratic military-industrial complex of his childhood is the constantly changing culture of Silicon Valley. There, job tenure is measured in months rather than years, and the only guarantee is that there will be no guarantees–or, rather, that there will be new and equally turbulent places to move on to. Beers recognizes that mobility does not necessarily mean insecurity. He tells the story of a 35-year-old downsized Lockheed employee who, after an initial period of discombobulation, goes on to find wealth and personal happiness by embracing change, risk, and adaptability.

Indeed, Beers can appreciate the liberating aspects of such a new world. Reflecting on the willingness of his father to share the shortcomings of stolid, corporate life, he writes, "I thank him for the doubt and pain he has revealed to me, layer by layer, not just through his stories but even when I knew it as inchoate anger. I am grateful because all of it showed me why the culture of the corporate bureaucracy was a way of work not only to be avoided but unlikely to thrive forever….If my father had not exposed for me the flaws in its foundation, would I have managed to be so far clear of the blue sky monolith when the toppling began?"

And yet, even as he charts the demise of that stultifying order, he laments the lack of a national American Dream that will regiment individuals into a tightly woven community. He cites 1995 focus-group discussions that "found Americans believing their economy was 'unraveling before their eyes,' believing that no institution–government, corporations, the media–reflected their concerns." Oddly, for Beers, the freedom to pursue one's ends seems to hold a higher price tag than subjugating them to the common good: Such freedom terminates in a war of all against all. Blue Sky Dream's final image has Beers sitting in a flight simulator by which he and three other "co-pilots" fly over a virtual Earth. As he approaches the Golden Gate Bridge, his plane "is suddenly in free fall, the hydraulic rockers beneath me pitching me forward, the pixilated azure of the Pacific Ocean filling more and more of my windscreen….I had not recorded the fact that this day's other fliers, my squadron mates, were not only allowed but invited to accumulate extra points by shooting down one of their own."

Throughout all these stories is a sense of despair and disappointment that the world turned out differently than anticipated. It is probably no coincidence that the tide of declinist stories has risen as the baby boomers cruise into true middle age and a keener appreciation of their lives' successes, failures, and future possibilities. The first boomers turned 50 this year; Springsteen is 47; Ford is 52; Beers speaks of "approaching middle age." As the boomers fully inhabit the seats of cultural production, they are realizing it is no easy task to age–a task made even more difficult by their generation's great emphasis on youth. Contingency, change, and flux, all of which have always been abundant in American life, are easier on the young, easier to take when you have little to lose and much to gain. And paradoxically, as people begin to reap the benefits of the choices they have made and the paths they have pursued, roads not taken often become all the more alluring. The "downsizing" of the American Dream may ultimately stem from the boomers' acknowledgement that their world, like the one before it, will inevitably give way to another.

As important, those uncomfortable with change can little appreciate or acknowledge what Joseph Schumpeter called "creative destruction," the process by which a market-based society "administers existing structures"–how it renews, revamps, and revitalizes itself. Instead they see mostly destruction; change is usually for the worse. Even someone like Beers, who acknowledges positive elements in a mobile economy, seems highly uncomfortable with such a pattern.

The news thus delivered has a relatively uncomplicated connection to the world it seeks to describe. Certainly, the human condition is often harsh, difficult, unjust, heartbreaking, desperate. Alas, such is life–a fact properly reflected in the stories we tell, from Oedipus Rex through contemporary tales. But life also includes hope, joy, growth, change, discovery. When our storytellers fail to capture, to document, to explore the creation of new worlds along with destruction of old ones, when they mistake our past for heaven and our present for hell, we are left with a cultural imagination that is severely impoverished and, ironically, bereft of dreams for the future.