Jonathan Yardley sees little to approve of in modern life

March 24, 1991|By Maude McDaniel

OUT OF STEP: NOTES

FROM A PURPLE DECADE.

Jonathan Yardley.

Villard.

264 pages. $20. Dudgeon, I believe, is the word for Jonathan Yardley's all-too-accustomed state of mind in this collection of columns from the Washington Post. More often ranging from a low to a middling dudgeon than the classic high sort, it pervades all but a dozen or so of these 64 slightly dispiriting, remarkably brave commentaries on the colorful 1980s.

Dispiriting, because he addresses "cultural and literary affairs, education both higher and lower, the press and the media, the ebb and flow of American social life," things that touch us directly; and he's telling us, in effect, that America is in serious danger of going down the drain.

Brave because as the title indicates, he dares to express opinions that are sometimes not, to use a phrase already cliched into fatuity, Politically Correct, especially in the Post. Though a WASP, and thus vulnerable to all the nasty things that are PC to say about white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, Mr. Yardley appears to have avoided most of the destructive attitudes associated with the stereotype, while retaining the cerebral thoughtfulness of its intellectual tradition. (He does for the most part, skip nimbly about the minefields of race, gender and religion, and who can blame him?)

Mr. Yardley, who won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1981, works the old-fashioned way, with immaculate syntax and meticulously thought-out arguments; not for him the sentence fragment, the easy dialogues with bartenders or cab drivers, the long-winded anecdotes that have become staples for other columnists. He does not suffer fools, gladly or otherwise, and he appreciates nuance.

Still, there is the negativism.

In his delightful family chronicle, "Our Kind of People," Mr. Yardley mentions that lecturing was reflexive with his father, and the trait appears to be genetic. Mr. Yardley cannot resist continually taking his world to task.

In sections dealing with "The Lit'ry Scene," "The American Scene" and a more upbeat "My Scene," Mr. Yardley sees the sky falling fastest on contemporary literature and art. He has little good to say of the current "literati," their "moral posturings," their "culturally acceptable political and social prejudices," their self-absorption, their delusions about themselves and others. He probably is among the few reviewers in our time with the nerve to indict a popular book, John Updike's "Rabbit Is Rich," because among other things, it "reeks of vulgarity."

Next to get a drubbing comes education, with its modern inclination to abandon the wisdom of the past in favor of the fad of the present, so that some professors become "more radical and even less responsible than the students themselves."

A Baltimore resident, he attacks New York City's reputation as a cradle for writers, and Williamsburg, Va., as "an America the Beautiful theme park." He skewers the yuppies-into-country lifestyle as "Hick Chic," unexplained by atavistic longings, since "these people are entirely too shallow to have longings any deeper than those for Bavarian automobiles, French chocolates, and Swiss holidays." Occasionally one of these columns seems more like a sortie than an essay, and Mr. Yardley a thinking man's Rambo.

However, after all that, I have to say he's almost always right.

It's customary, when older generations deplore the trends of the time, to remind them that the habit is as ancient as the hills; even Socrates gave in to it. True, but less than a century after Socrates' death, the glory that was Greece did fall apart, and from the inside out. So did Rome and a lot of other civilizations in the history of the world. Obviously, from time to time, some of those grumpy generations got it right.

Mr. Yardley just wants to make sure his isn't one of them.

Ms. McDaniel is a writer living in Cumberland.

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