Sunday, March 9, 2014

Keyser Babbitt: In Which I Titularly Reference the Wrong Kevin Spacey Movie

This is a picture of my copy of Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt. Note that it's taped up.  And, if you can see, note that it cost .75 cents.  I think I probably took this book from my Mom's house at some point and that either she or my dear departed Dad bought it before I was even a twinkle in anyone's eye.  And I'm straight-up middle aged now!  I've been hauling this damn book around forEVER without reading it.  And I finally did.  And, honey, it was good.  I took a journey with ole George Babbitt.

Through the first part of my Babbitty journey, I found myself struck again and again by how Babbitt, this conformist upper middle-class Republican, could, but for some minor tweaks to his vernacular, fit right in at CPAC 2014.  Check it - Babbitt on religion:

Ashamed I haven't sat in more.  Fellow that's an influence in the community - shame if he doesn't take part in a real virile hustling religion.  Sort of Christianity incorporated, you might say.  But with all reverence.  Some folks might claim these Sunday School fans are undignified and unspiritual and so on.  Sure!  Always some skunk to spring things like that!  Knocking and sneering and tearing down - so much easier than building up.  But me, I certainly hand it to these magazines.  They've brought old George F Babbitt into camp, and that's the answer to the critics!  The more manly and practical a fellow is, the more he ought to lead the enterprising Christian life.
Doesn't that, despite the now pejorative connotation of "hustling," sound just like something Glen Beck might say?

I spent about 100 pages or so feeling really smug and sort of depressed about how "same as it ever was" things seem to be.  Babbitt is familiar - despite being almost 100 years old.

About 2/3 into the book, after a major shock to his system, Babbitt begins to rebel against his own conformity.  And he rebels so lamely!  This got to thinking about American Beauty, which is, albeit broadly, the same story.

But they end so differently!

At the end of Babbitt, Babbitt decides that it's all, at the ripe old age of 48, too late for him.  But he encourages his son to go for it, to live the kind of life he wants rather than what's expected of him.

At the end of American Beauty, as Lester Burnham is shuffling off his mortal coil, he realizes that life, even if you spend it conforming to social norms, is beautiful and profound and is so grateful for having been able to be alive.

Thinking about how these two things ramble through such similar territory but land so differently led me back to this post*, wherein my super smart friend, Paul, writes about how much we can get tripped up by feeling like a failure that we are not, I dunno, Tina Fey.  Or Amy Poehler.  For me it's Tina Fey or Amy Poehler.  For you it might be someone else.  

And I wonder, as I knock here at 45 with the understanding that I am unlikely to be Amy Fey, do I want to be dying Lester and embrace my life for the singular beauty that it is and has or do I want to be living(ish) Babbitt and encourage Laney to go for Tina Poehler-dom.

I lean towards the former.  Don't you?

That said, Babbitt is much, much better than American Beauty.  You should read it.  There's this part where Lewis begins a chapter like so:
It was a shame, at this worried time, to have to think about the Overbrooks.
That's the first time he mentions the Overbrooks.  But aren't you just dying to know about them?  I'll take an elegant segue like that over that fraught plastic-bag-in-the-wind monologue any day of the week.

I'm gonna go google now and see if this whole Babbitt/American Beauty thing has already been done to death.  I'm likely not nowhere near as clever as I think I am.

*Paul writes more about career and economics here than Life Writ Large.  But I've just decided to misinterpret for my own purposes. I do it allllllll the time.  :)