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Book review: <i>Balsamic Dreams, A Short But Self-Important History of the Baby Boomer Generation</i> by Joe Queenan

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the cover of the book

If this was edited with a hatchet, you'd get half a funny book; you could then threaten the author with the hatchet until he produced the other half.


An awkward but moderately eye-catching design - it's Joe's little head superimposed on a bottle of balsamic vinegar, so it (sort of) looks like the bottle's his body, with scratchy little stick-man arms and text drawn in the a crude black style against a blank white background. It's as clunky to visually parse as it is to describe, plus a ten year old could knock it up in half an hour with Photoshop and the internet. Hard black-on-white draws the eye, however.

The plot

Queenan, a Boomer himself, attempts to skewer the whole generation once and for all.

The good

Queenan can write. His comedic essaying lacks the sparkle of Barry, the wit of O'Rourke or the intelligence of Clive James, but he knows how to say what he wants, doesn't waste words, and doesn't stretch or strain for gags.

He's also picked one of the softest, plumpest, least-able-to-waddle-out-of-range targets there is. Plus, obviously, there's always a certain thrill to be had when somebody rounds on their own - and who better to round on:

"As convinced of their uniqueness as the Bolsheviks, as persuaded of their genius as the Victorians, as self-absorbed as the Romantics, as prosperous as the ancient Romans, ...Feared and admired in their youth, today they inspire little more than irritation. The single most damning, and obvious, criticism that can be levelled at Baby Boomers is, of course, that they promised they wouldn't sell out and become fiercely materialistic like their parents, and then they did. They further complicated matters by mulishly spending their entire adult lives trying to persuade themselves and everybody else that they had not in fact sold out, that they had merely matured and grown wiser, that their values had undergone some sort of benign intellectual mutation."

P.J. O'ROURKE, YOUR BUS IS LEAVING. Seriously, though, passages like this are what lift the book from the Grumpy Old Men shitheap.

The bad

Unfortunately it flops back down there on every second page. Look, the boomers shit me as much as the next person, but...let's put it this way. In "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot", Al Franken mentions, in a footnote, that you don't write a book whose title calls someone fat without going to the gym. Queenan's arrogance (tangible on every page) seems to have let him write a book listing the worst traits of Baby Boomers without asking how often he (and his writing) exhibit these bad habits. And the answer, if you were wondering, is: Often. Queenan is self-righteously judgemental (from no good standpoint), and barely acknowledges the vast fortuity and automatic entitlement endowed upon him at birth by belonging to the generation (of Americans, because that's who we're primarily discussing) which he does. Instead, like the worst of his peers, he settles his overstuffed butt on the throne of privilege and gets directly to bitching.

And bitch he does. This is least endearing when he's directing his sallies at targets so soft they're virtually decomposing - pony-tails, jogging, self-help, etc. And this is a shame because sometimes he strikes something untouched - Boomer popularisation of the 'canned riff' as a replacement for discussion, the idea of the boomers and Gen X being enablers of each other's worst aspects - get lost amongst the fly-blown flab.

Look. This is a passable, sometimes amusing distraction; a cheap but reasonably accurate salvo directed at the author's own peers. But basically this book is redundant. If you want to see the Baby Boom generation dissected by their successors with passion (and actual research), read "Gangland" by Mark Davis, "Please Just Fuck Off...It's Our Turn Now" by Ryan Heath, or Vice magazine's "We Hate Your Parents Too" issue. If you want to see Baby Boomers dissecting themselves and their own upbringing with wit, self-awareness and affection, read "Dave Barry Turns 50," by the titular author, "Old Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence and a Bad Haircut," by P.J. O'Rourke, or "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid," by Bill Bryson. Or, if you'd like to see Queenan's vitriolic scalpel used on subjects he's less compromised towards, read "White Trash, Red Lobster and the Blue Lagoon". (Joe spends six months absorbing as much American populist crap as he can find - yes, it's just as cheap a premise, but a much funnier book.)

What I learnt

Bugger all.

In short

Title: Balsamic Dreams, A Short But Self-Important History of the Baby Boomer Generation
Author: Joe Queenan
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-0312420826
Year published: 2002
Pages: 224
Genre(s): Non-fiction, Humour
Review Type: