The Weird Beauty of Suburbia
The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs, by Jason Diamond, Coffee House Press, 264 pages, $16.95
I was scrolling through the posts on my Maryland neighborhood’s Listserv this summer when a notice for a bake sale caught my eye. This was no brownies-on-a-card-table affair. It sounded like a banquet, with snickerdoodles, madeleines, pecan butterballs, lemon shortbread, and other treats spread out in a senior center’s parking lot.
Anyone who lives in a middle-class suburb knows that when Type A parents organize to raise money for the PTA, nothing can stand in their way. But this was a fundraiser for an initiative called Bakers Against Racism. All of the proceeds went to Black Lives Matter DC and, more generally, to groups that are fighting police brutality.
Suburbia is supposed to represent everything bland and boring, yet it still manages to surprise us. How can a place that we’re intimately familiar with—more than half of America lives in the suburbs—be so unknowable? This is the enigma Jason Diamond plumbs in The Sprawl, a collection of essays tracing the “undercurrent of strangeness” running beneath fescue lawns and chain restaurants, linking Ray Bradbury to Poltergeist to punk rock. The result is an enjoyable, generous, and heartfelt tour around the suburbs of the American psyche, although Diamond sometimes boxes himself in with a too-rigid conception of the suburban way of life.
Diamond lives in Brooklyn, but his roots are suburban. Growing up, he bounced around communities on Chicago’s North Shore. These are not just any suburbs: They’re the suburbs, thanks to Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and other movies that John Hughes filmed in the area, shaping the world’s perceptions of American suburbia for a generation to come. The misfits of The Breakfast Club are the kind of suburban souls whom Diamond most identifies with—creative, lonely teenagers restless to explore the world beyond their cul-de-sacs.
Diamond’s basic theory of suburban creativity is that dull suburbs foster a sense of alienation or anxiety or bottled-up longing that sometimes becomes art. So you get John Cheever’s famous short story “The Swimmer,” about a suburbanite who makes his way home from a party by pool-hopping across the backyards of his neighbors, a journey that turns progressively darker; but you also get the spate of suburban horror movies of the 1980s, with a menacing Freddy Krueger hinting at suburbanites’ fears of both urban crime and Russian nukes.
And you get lots and lots of music. Probably the strongest essay in the book is “In the Garage,” where Diamond explor
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