Sometimes a book can become dated to the point that it is newly topical. David Brooks set out to capture the spirit of George Bush’s America in 2004. From that ambition was born his entertaining and often-brilliant second book, On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now, and Always Have, in the Future Tense. The world he illustrates is a world that we have lost.

Starting with a tangy and amusing travelogue of middle-class America, Brooks describes the way we lived in the early 2000’s. He divides us up into invented demographic categories–patio men, ubermoms, and son–and sketches the lifestyles, habits, and values of the various slices of the American cake. But for all his efforts at taxonomy, Brooks ultimately seeks the credo that brought all Americans together at that point in time. He finds it in their capacity to dream.

The critical chapters of this book take as their concern the nature of yearning in America. Two views of American ambition are examined, and the sunny one prevails. Americans are not, Brooks concludes, money-obsessed mediocre boobs. Instead, they go forth with such singular energy because they believe they can author a glorious future. Hope, not greed, drives the American minivan.

Nevertheless, he concedes that Americans can be every bit as crass and shallow as their foreign (French!) critics allege. Here he finds our critical shortcoming: a paucity of philosophical ambition. At one point, channeling early-2000’s patois, he accuses the nation of “bitch goddess success.” If Americans were idealistic and deeper than advertised, they also had a weakness for frosted tips and VH1.

Reading On Paradise Drive today, the traits he sketches are still recognizable as part of the American character. At the same time, it seems incredibly limited. Americans today have far more profound anxieties about racism, national decline, and a social structure that is failing as many as 99% of the people. Perhaps they should have then. In any event, recent years have called our very identity as a striving nation into broadly held doubt.

We have clearly lost something since David Brooks published On Paradise Drive. Call it confidence, mojo, self-knowledge, or delusion. An America whose main insecurity derived from fears that people in foreign countries considered this nation vapid seems far more than 17 years away. To the extent that the years since the 2008 financial crisis have made Americans take a harder look in the mirror, there is probably some good in that. But it is also indicative of a nation that has lost its sense of promise, built dream by dream, century by century, and squandered by a war, a crash, and an autocrat.


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