Not just bad, but B-A-D!

Monday Book Reviews

March 16, 1992|By Jay Merwin

BAD: Or the Dumbing of America. By Paul Fussell. Summit Books. 201 pages. $19. WHAT is it that unnerves us in an expensive restaurant when a blow-dried person in an apron presumes intimacy by saying: "My name is Sandy and I'll be your server tonight"? Why does the recitation of the "specials" -- bloated with adjectives about the sauce slathered on them and the sensuous pliability of their fibers -- make us worry we're being taken?

Finally, Paul Fussell explains this experience, and many others like it, in his new book, "BAD: Or the Dumbing of America."

The overrated chop house intimidates its patrons, he says, from presentation of the leather-bound menu to the attentions of that epicene "server" brandishing a giant pepper mill with an exhortation to "enjoy." Quite simply, we've been marinating in an aggressive pretension called BAD that curdles much of contemporary American culture.

Mr. Fussell arrives at a helpful definition of this quality and applies it as readily as spray paint against glittering edifices of hype and phoniness. BAD is not kitsch, or Elvis-worship, or pink flamingoes on the lawn. They are only bad, objects of bad taste.

"For a thing to be really BAD," Mr. Fussell writes, "it must exhibit elements of the pretentious, the overwrought, or the fraudulent . . . Dismal food is bad. Dismal food pretentiously served in a restaurant associated with the word gourmet is BAD."

The book is an alphabetical catalog of BAD. The BAD Architecture chapter compares the lobby of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington to Hitler's Chancellery. The BAD Hotels chapter warns against staying anywhere that touts its "elegant living" and other superlatives reeking of Donald Trumpery.

Mr. Fussell is a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of books about war and class distinctions.

He is also a cranky man. Avoid him while traveling. More likely, he'll avoid you. In his BAD Airports chapter, poor Mr. Fussell finds himself in a "boarding lounge" waiting out some mechanical failure in the airplane, while "infants are crying, standees are shifting from foot to foot and bores are already preparing their repertoires." He always ends up sitting next to one.

He denounces the "proletarianization of air travel." But his belief in nationalized airline service seems a lame remedy to his complaint about being thrown into the riotous pageant of humanity.

This is a recurring flaw in the book. Mr. Fussell's fulminations against genuine BAD can shade into a snobbishness about uneducated people and about everyone else, educated or not, who ever voted for Ronald Reagan. Here Mr. Fussell becomes a fussy head waiter in his own BAD restaurant.

In Mr. Fussell's deployment of the buzzword "greed" in commentaries on the 1980s, all the marks of BAD are present: moral pretension in the speaker who has found some way other than high finance to get rich, overwrought argument and a fraudulent sense of kinship between readers and the author and his smart set who were too intelligent to buy into the 1980s.

Mr. Fussell could be making better headway against BAD if his ideology didn't blind him to some of the most verdant tracts of BAD in American culture. His discussion of BAD colleges deals almost entirely with second-rate colleges that re-designate themselves as "universities." Yet he makes a clean miss of the restrictions many avowedly liberal arts colleges enforce against politically incorrect formulations of speech.

In most of his chapters, however, Mr. Fussell is on to something quite true. But his short book cries out for more of them, starting perhaps with another entry under C, for condom. In the moral iconography of contemporary condom wear, condoms are proffered to friends, strangers and New York school children in expressions of hearty goodwill, the way people once wished each other "Godspeed," or "good hunting." That's the blend of pomp and vulgarity that not even a blind date between Donald Trump and Leona Helmsley could achieve, even if both tried to beat the restaurant check.

Mr. Fussell has succeeded in creating BAD as a new and worthy category just waiting to be applied to our own experience.

Despite his occasional misses, most of Mr. Fussell's delvings into BAD are so rollicking and right that the reader cannot help but join him in rooting out more of it.

Not bad.

Jay Merwin is a reporter for The Evening Sun and The Sun.

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