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Published: Sunday, 5/13/2001

Brooks takes a wry look at upscale America

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

BOBOS* IN PARADISE. By David Brooks. Simon & Schuster. 288 pages. $14.

Bobos are among us. You may sleep with one. You may already be one. What's a Bobo? It's short for “Bourgeois Bohemian,” a term coined by Newsweek contributing editor David Brooks, and in his wry dissection of upscale America, Bobos* in Paradise, which was just released in paperback, he digs around the habits of a strain of society you need only walk into Starbucks to observe in its natural habitat.

“Defying expectations and maybe logic, people seemed to have combined the countercultural '60s and the achieving '80s into one social ethos,” he writes. These people used to be lumped under a simpler definition: sellout. That's a naive assumption now, he writes. Bobos are more complicated than that. Here's a quick sketch:

Bobos are in their late 20s to late 40s, sort of hip, financially secure, and smart enough to play along at home with Jeopardy. Spiritually and politically, Bobos “spend much of their time pining for simpler ways of living, looking backward for the wisdom that people with settled lives seem to possess” - though in practice, Bobos are too professionally busy to ever truly have a simple or spiritual life.

Their code of behavior is not written in stone. It's etched in distressed Italian tile, and carried out by aging hipsters wearing steel-frame glasses because these days it's “more prestigious to look like Franz Kafka than Paul Newman.”

Bobos suffer from Status-Income Disequilibrium, which affects those who are masters of their universes by day, and reduced to scrubbing their toilets by night. Bobos shop at chain stores that do not feel like chain stores. (Think of any toy store that calls itself a “learning center.”) And Bobos never spend $2 on Lever when they can spend $16 on Mayan Fungus Soap - a nod to distant cultures they know nothing about.

He sees a generation that wants everything watered down, and muddied up a bit for “authenticity.” He's best when writing about the consumer and business side, and less persuasive when he gets to the spiritual and political side of the Bobo ideal. Perhaps because there is no ideal, just a fly-fishing expedition for whatever works.

In fact, late in the book, he finds himself on the Big Black- foot River in Montana, where Norman Maclean set A River Runs Through It, and he's not sure why. “I've been hanging around this magnificent setting for 30 minutes and I haven't had one moment of elevated consciousness,” he writes, and goes on that nature is happening all around, but no matter how much of a Bobo he is, he can't lie and say he felt something profound. “It occurs to me that maybe it's too late in the season for transcendence.”



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