Sunday, March 9, 2008

Howard Who meets Mr. Bobo

A little while ago at a convention I told a friend that I was interested in seeing Howard Waldrop read, and the friend rolled his eyes. Without trying to discourage me, the friend implied that he thought Waldrop was overrated. I have been reading "Things Will Never Be the Same," an anthology of HW's readings released a few years ago, and I figured out why when I got to "Do Ya, Do Ya, Wanna Dance."

The plot, such as there is, of the story is the 20-year reunion of the class of 1969. And unfortunately, the story is exactly what that sounds like. It's a big mishmash of 60s/80s hippie/yuppie cliches practically yanked out of a 1983 Doonesbury cartoon thrown together, and they don't even make any sense. "I'll really put 1969 in a nutshell for you. There are six of you sharing a three-bedroom house that fall, and you're splitting a rent you think is exhorbitant..." But wait a minute. They were supposed to still be in high school. Were they all runaways (with perfect attendance)? In 1989, stuck-up yuppies are taking disabled Vietnam veterans' handicapped parking places and threatening to beat up the narrator for a pack of donuts. But the narrator has never sold out, preserving his status as a hopeless loser passing out to porno videos in the middle of the night. "So this is what me and my whole generation had come down to, people sleeping naked in front of their TVs with empty beer cans in their laps." Um, actually, I think that's just you.

The ending of this mishmash of cliches (spoiler alert, kind of) has something to do with the song that will "save the world," sung be bohemians that have become stereotypically bourgeois. This should have made David Brooks happy. His book "Bobos in Paradise," which I've admittedly only read fractions of and heard DB bloviate about for hours on end, takes the position that the bourgeois are the future of bohemia, with the added implication that this is a new thing. Of course, the bourgeois are the present, past and future of bohemia. If I had any readers, I'd get scores of nasty e-mails saying something to the fact of "hey, I was poor and bohemian!" First of all, it's a class thing, not a money thing; you can be poor and bourgeois. Second of all, I'm talking statistically. In general, the people that have the resources and motivation to fritter away their youth that way are middle class. And most of them end up being what are generally described as bourgeois, or in the modern sense yuppies. 90% chance that guy that wrote "yuppies go home" all over the East Village is going to be a yuppie some day. It's like a tadpole saying "frogs get out."

But that's an oversimplification too. People aren't that simple. There are no hippies, no yuppies, no hipsters and bourgeois. There are people who inhabit different identities in the public sphere for a while, then another, and most of the time just kind of do what they do. And Waldrop has some stories where that's exactly what happens. "The Ugly Chickens" is as good an example of that as anything. But I can definitely see where my friend was coming from.

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