Occasionally he hits perfect pitch. Six years ago, before his Times gig, he published a great long article in The Atlantic called The Organization Kid, which prescribed everything that had gone badly wrong with my classmates and with myself. The article was a personal revelation. I read it and re-read it, forwarded it to my grad-school classmates, none of whom seemed to understand why I was so enthusiastic.
For a conservative man who's probably led a very cautious life, Brooks certainly hates structure and conformity. Four out of five of his Times columns read like soft, center-right bluster. On the fifth he lets loose with something surprising or insightful -- and occasionally with something incredibly odd. He did good in today's column on Jack Kerouac and the 50th anniversary of On the Road:
True, the paragraph that follows is itself childish and embarrassing -- apparently Brooks felt compelled to beef up his argument with a flight of fancy about things that don't exist in real life -- but the rest of the column is a keeper, worth printing, folding up, and sticking into your beat-up paperback copy of On the Road.
But the real secret of the book was its discharge of youthful energy, the stupid, reckless energy that saves "On the Road" from being a dreadful novel. The delightful, moronic, unreflective fizz appears whenever the characters are happiest, when they are chasing girls or urinating from a swerving flatbed truck while going 70 miles an hour.
Those parts haven't survived. They run afoul of the new gentility, the rules laid down by the health experts, childcare experts, guidance counselors, safety advisers, admissions officers, virtuecrats and employers to regulate the lives of the young. They seem dangerous, childish and embarrassing in the world of professionalized adolescence and professionalized intellect.
A lot of conservatives romanticize 1950s suburbia. Brooks doesn't. It's something more complicated -- he dislikes structure and thinks achievement is overrated. Brooks's utopian vision seems to consist of eating a heavy dinner, pissing from pick-ups, chasing skirt and conversing about Plato for a couple hours. At some point he'd probably want to smoke a bowl.
While his typical schtick is to condescend to Wal-Mart critics and Prius buyers, are there any other figures with his kind of profile who use valuable column inches to encourage "delightful, moronic, unreflective fizz" and "stupid, reckless energy"? It's why, even when he pisses me off with something glib and condescending, I find him hard to hate. There's a restless, lazy 17-year-old guy inside of him, and this communicates in weird ways that occasionally approach genius.