Why does the experience of standing in the street of a suburban housing subdivision… fill a healthy, normal person with the very primal dread of everlasting darkness?
James Howard Kunstler
John Cheever and John Updike were probably the first to divulge the Post-Eisenhower burbs’ Big Secret. Sure, the suburbs were safe cocoons of Caucasian conformity, but behind the white picket fences, 2-car garages and manicured lawns there also inevitably lay untold evil: adultery, alcoholism, filial dysfunction, moral bankruptcy, and yes, sometimes even murder.
The latest generation of suburb-bashing writers — most notably, Jeff Eugenides, Rick Moody and A.M. Homes– construct fictional examples of an even more forebodingly banal suburbia. Gosh, who knew that under all that wealth and privilege one could find wife-swap meets, Barbie-doll abuse, and teenage suicide cults! And most recently, there’s Alan Ball’s extreme dystopian view featured in the self-consciously morbid HBO series Six Feet Under. Ball posits a worst-case suburban nightmare where the experience of murder and death has become just another mundane, everyday aspect of suburban life.
Mark Falanga’s The Suburban You, however, is a non-fictional, thesis-free, made-for-TV, ADD-approved examination of American suburban life. We’re again confronted with the inexplicably popular trend of the “fish-out-of-water” — the hopeless, hapless Average Joe who moves to an alien environment where the disorienting effects of extreme culture shock pass for popular entertainment. But hey, if some poor Amish fellow relocates to New York City and has his misadventures broadcast nationwide, why shouldn’t a city slicker like Falanga move to the suburbs and suffer for the delight of bored reality-TV nuts that might also read the occasional 250-page reality-TV book?
So what can successful furniture dealer and reluctant yuppie Mark Falanga tell us that we don’t already know? Not much, but he does return us to a more innocent, playfully irreverent view of the American Suburb (think John Hughes). The easily transportable book is divided into easily digested “chapters” of usually no more than two or three easily turned pages — culminating in a series of mildly entertaining but not terribly insightful anecdotal gags.
In Falanga’s suburbia, Hell hath no fury like buying paint for the children’s bathroom, enduring conga lines at a backyard soiree, or being forced to eat Chinese food. You want dark secrets? Well, there’s the foxy philanthropist housewife who gets drunk at a block party, and admits to a drunk, horny Falanga that she’s wearing a thong. He also meets his son’s sexy Spanish teacher while at the beach, and her g-string inspires some of the book’s most vivid descriptive passages.
The only overarching structure imposed on the book is a seasonal one. The major sections are divided into Your Suburban Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall, with sub-headings such as “Have a Lawn Sale.” Falanga touches upon most all the expected suburban phenomena: the Unwanted Ping-Pong Table; neighbors whose OCD manifests itself year-round in blinding displays of holiday lights, and the child-proud weekend warriors who coach little league sports with the near-psychotic intensity of a Bobby Knight.
More interesting, though (and in need of further examination), is the real estate-brokering schizophrenia of “house flippers,” the pre-adolescent kid next door with the working flame-thrower, and David Golub, the Ned Flanders-like neighbor who’s always claiming he “loves” the Falangas, and often asks Mrs. Falanga out for Starbucks coffee.
Falanga eventually indulges in some “playful” xenophobia, subtle homophobia, and general Fear Of the Other while contradictorily poking fun at his lily-white neighborhood’s ironic “Unity Through Diversity” slogan. While on a community-sponsored tour of an inner-city auto-recycling plant — located on the Afro-American-dominated South Side of Chicago — he jokes about the possibility of having his Mercedes Benz stolen. He betrays a certain repulsion-cum-thrill when taking detailed stock of the loner transvestite on the commuter train. He becomes the butt of a bad Seinfeldian haircut joke, after agreeing to the same $6 buzz cut his son gets. After targeting the Romanian barber’s thick accent for some easy pot shots, the inevitable military-style shearing occurs, exposing Falanga’s “oval head.” Falanga also makes the occasional ethnic or cultural observation that’s simply baffling: “Having a vowel strategically located as the letter of your last name means that many things you do turn into a competition.”
And although Mrs. Falanga plays a major role in her husband’s book, she’s hard to envision as a physical entity. In fact, his wife comes off as an impersonal, faceless nag — one who projects self-assurance, but in actuality is a hopelessly misguided control freak. What’s worse, Mr. Falanga is the most blatant appeaser since Neville Chamberlain (too often responding to his wife’s dictatorial demands with pussy-whipped responses like “Whatever will make you happy, honey”) Soon, we infer the obvious: the bitter Mrs. Falanga is in full passive-aggressive revolt — driven to knee-jerk adversarial behavior out of sheer resentment toward her husband. After all, she was pressured to quit her high-paying corporate job only to endure pregnancy and its messy after-effects (childcare, mainly).
At a New Year’s Eve dinner, Mrs. Falanga embarrasses her husband by accidentally drinking from a water pitcher. In Italy, she reveals her dubious grasp of Italian by unwittingly telling a stranger that she “sucks her husband.” She won’t watch the movies he rents. She won’t go to the Italian restaurants he likes. She hogs the phone. She runs an in-house clothing business into the ground. She demands the car windows be rolled up at all times. She deprives Falanga of his favorite drink (grape juice) and his favorite extracurricular activity (sex). She argues about how and where a recreational walk to the park will begin. She even wants to help write this very book (Mr.Falanga refuses). At this point, you fantasize about the creatively brutal ways in which famous suburbanite husband Tony Soprano might handle Mrs. Falanga.
Unfortunately, as soon as you become intrigued by the quirks of a particular suburbanite or related oddity, the book’s focus quickly pans to another subject. We all know weirdos exist in the otherwise cozy conformism of the suburbs, but how are these odd behavioral patterns formed and nurtured? What makes these freaks tick? Falanga is simply a casual observer, and lacks more investigative instincts.
You’d rather learn more about the disturbed David Golub types, and the youthful pyromaniacs of the community, and maybe less about goofball Falanga and his draining spouse. And could it be that hyper-competitive neighborhood parents are obnoxious strivers because they can’t leave their will-to-power at the office where it belongs? Falanga rarely employs this sort of behind-the-scenes inquiry. Then again, maybe this is asking too much of a thrift-conscious novelty book with high marketing aspirations, but rather low ambitions otherwise.