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Running on Empty

Bob Greene speaks for a generation, but which one? He disgorges thoughts so weird, so wrong, that I believe thy are so unique in the history of the world.


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When you're 36 you know if you read a book, a book of garbage written by an idiot, that whatever you say about it, however clearly you underline the oppressive idiocy of the book's garbage to people--some of whom may be friends you've known all your life and others strangers traveling to distant cities on business trips--you can't hope to have much impact on our interconnected, chain-restauranted, bouncing-off-satellites world. At 36 you know this.

Sorry. I've just finished reading Bob Greene's latest book, The 50 Year Dash: The Feelings, Foibles, and Fears of Being Half a Century Old, and his thought patterns are still infecting my brain.

Give me a moment to recover. Breathe. Think of something positive that has happened in the past 25 years: the worldwide eradication of smallpox.

There, I feel better. The fog is lifting. How can this still come as a surprise? It's Bob's 16th book. Just as scenes of London are expected in the work of Charles Dickens, there are certain elements common to every Bob product: the terrible writing; the muddy thinking; the suffocating, relentless nostalgia.

But my God, Bob really tops himself here. Let's begin with the writing. It is the worst he's ever published--perhaps the worst anybody has ever published. You think I'm kidding? Read the following sentence: "Like the father who sits in a ballpark with his son, looking at the boy but also seeing himself as a boy, looking at his boy looking at the ball game and being both the father who is there today and the son who used to be there with his own father forty years before, being the father and the child all at once, and that fact being so much more important than the game out on the diamond..."

Those are his ellipses. On page 97. Second full paragraph. Ellipses. As if at that point he had to break off the sentence to wiggle his fingers against his lips and go, "Ah-bee-bahdee-bahdee-bahdee."

The book is written in all three persons--first person for Bob's own cherished history, third person for real life glimpsed while shuffling through airport walkways, and second person so he can backpedal away from his own thoughts while trying to fob them off as universal experience. "At 50," he writes, "you go into a fury if the wake-up call you have left doesn't ring on schedule." I'll bet you do Bob, but why implicate us? That his editor didn't break an arm lunging to correct the countless grotesque language crimes committed in this book is a greater sign of societal decay than any of the minor developments Bob points to with transfixed, Chicken Little horror.

But focusing on Bob Greene's leaden nightmare of a writing style is like criticizing Goebbels's grammar. It misses the point. And besides, one might plausibly argue that his prose style is perfectly suited to the banal thoughts he labors so mightily to express. In fact, his writing looks better and better after you examine his thinking.

The book contains Bob's observations on turning 50, speaking from the vanguard of the baby boom. Some observations are very short: "As far as your expectations of gracious service and personal attention go, the advent of salad bars may have been the beginning of the end" or "At 50, it occurs to you, it has been several decades since you went shopping for postcards." (If those thoughts strike you as profound or even interesting, by all means, stop reading this now and run out and buy the book; you've found a soul mate.)

Bob's world, needless to say, is tumbling downhill. Reading? "An endangered species." Car alarms? "Our new national anthem." The electric guitar? "The visual symbol of our generation." Every hiccup of fashion is heard by Bob as the dying gasp of civilization. Are young boys' wearing boxer shorts instead of briefs? He mourns the change, never realizing that a 49-year-old man (he doesn't actually turn 50 until March) analyzing the current state of boys underwear is far creepier than any of the tiny cultural shifts that jolt Bob like a baby on a roller coaster.

How can a man be so introspective yet devoid of personal insight? That he could write this book at all, pretending to be a voice for his generation, is itself blindness. The notion that Bob Greene could ever speak for anything beyond his own private hell is laughable, as if Humbert Humbert decided to write a primer on fatherhood.

Bob disgorges thoughts so weird, so wrong, that I believe they are unique in the history of the world. Pundits stretching back to Virgil have decried the tastes of the generations succeeding them. Only Bob takes that extra step and deems the current popular culture so worthless it may not provide grist to form fond memories for those unfortunate enough to be young today. "You do worry about what nostalgia is going to mean to these young people in the not-so-distant future," Bob writes, unaware that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" will serve as a generational marker just as nicely as "Louie Louie."

Bob likes to worry, for its own sake. Worrying strikes him as moral, and he doesn't much care what contradictions he stumbles over. Here, he bewails the fact that Gunsmoke is no longer a familiar TV show to many. There, he frets that cable is forcing old reruns down the throats of the young, robbing them of the joy of developing their own pop culture. On this page, he mourns the loss of movie theaters: "What of the coming generations who will never know that special feeling--going to the movies with thousands of other people...a lovely facet of civilized living--of polite society?" Seven pages later he's in a theater, shrinking in disgust from the humanity massed around him. "The very concept of a movie theater--sitting in a dark room full of total strangers--strikes you anew as questionable."

I'm tempted to attribute such violent swings of opinion to schizophrenia, but Bob has already established his utter insincerity when it comes to tweaking heartstrings. He has the honesty of a porn actress. If he thinks something will evoke a splat of emotion, then by God, he does it, rounding his mouth in fake ecstasy, furrowing his brow as if in pain, squeezing out an ersatz tear, whatever that tiny director in his head tells him might get his audience off.

His only genuine emotion is nostalgia, as intrinsic to Bob Greene as French people are to Proust. Bob must wish he had died in a car wreck on the night of his senior prom and view his subsequent adult life as the penalty to be paid for having once been young. He is a man untouched by adulthood. "Many of the things you liked best at 17, it turns out, are the things you like best now," he writes. "The concept of 'growing into more sophisticated tastes,' you learn, does not always hold true."

If he has developed any interest, found any hobby, discovered any aspect of living past adolescence that has provided any trace of comfort or value, he does not mention it. He flatly states that no one can enjoy his "best" years outside childhood. "Those birthdays--the best-year birthdays--are gone." He puzzles at why anyone in middle age would take a college course, finally concluding they are "looking to get back that New Student Week feeling." Right.

Bob pines so endlessly for the "sun-washed and happy summers of [his] teenage years" that I began to suspect he was raised in a closet, that his tired Beach Boys/Beaver Cleaver shtick is a defense mechanism, some fantasy manufactured to screen himself from a tormented childhood. Why else would he reject adult life so vehemently, if not to strike back at all the grown-ups who hurt him?

Any references to actual people in the book are almost inevitably in the past. When a person is quoted by name, you can bet that the action happened 35 years ago--"Four tickets please," says friend Jack Roth, trying to get Bob into a dirty movie in 1962.

Most of the book's conversations come from unidentified men and women, snippets overheard in airports. Specters float by--nameless, faceless, hazy as dreams. They utter a bit of talk that echoes in Bob's brain and vanish. Keeping his sources vague also helps place him in Pleasantville, USA. The book's opening observation is that approaching 50 makes you feel "like a teenager who's been in a fight." He attributes the quote to "a man I've known for years," which makes the person sound like Bob Greene's grocer, Mr. Friendly. In fact, the line was immediately recognizable as one lifted from a column by sportswriter Rick Telander. Bob knows Telander, so it's not an outright lie--rather a bold attempt to disguise one of his savvy media pals as a rustic philosopher.

The few times Bob describes the present era, he sounds naive to the point of imbecility. How can Bob--he of all people, the Odysseus of the Hyatt chain, the Hercules of the hotel mini-bar--possibly expect us to believe that, in the Year of Our Lord 1993, he discovered hotel-room cable porn? That he really was surprised to learn it's not "fairly tame, go-go dancers in fringed tops, like on the old Hullabaloo TV show"?

Coming from a man who has written treatises on hotel shampoo and pillow mints, this is an obvious lie to present himself in what he considers a good light. Bobchild Lost in the Promised Land. At the heart of Bob's masquerade is incredible ego. He truly believes--or more precisely, truly wants us to believe--that he is the Catcher in the Rye, the High Plains Drifter, the last vestige of what is good and true, moving through a blasted landscape of ruin and corruption.

Real-life practicalities would only interfere with this fantasy. Thus Bob writes a book on turning 50 and never mentions his marriage. Nor does he mention his daughter. Not once. Sex gets a pass too, as does religion. All the while, he presumes to represent his entire generation. He even speaks--boldly, without apology or hesitation--for 50-year-old women. His ideas about them are precisely what a 17-year-old boy in 1964 would imagine women thinking as they turn 50. Bob's women "look at their kitchens, and all they can see is all the meals they've made, all the dishes they've washed, thousands of meals and thousands of dishes." Yup, that's Tina Turner in a nutshell.

Bob Greene's writing is so false that on the rare occasions when he appears to be honest, it has real shock value, as if Bob's humanity were concentrated into a shriveled, parasitic twin jutting feetfirst from the center of his chest. Usually Bob keeps the monstrosity carefully hidden while he muses and prevaricates and pretends not to be a freak. But every so often, he feels compelled to throw open his shirt and give us a good look at the deformed and stunted little person embedded within.

At several points in the book, for instance, Bob alludes to his drinking. Dinner, he writes, might consist of a Milky Way and three beers (which means that in reality dinner was a Milky Way and three big glasses of vodka, assuming that the Milky Way wasn't fabricated to lend a childish cast to his liquid meal).

He keeps reminding us that he can't sleep at night. He is haunted by something. There's a poignant moment when, before going on the Tonight Show, Bob sits on the vacant set and feels empty. He dances on the edge, trembles on the brink of recognizing the relentless Sammy Glick-like ambition that keeps his animate corpse busy now that all but a vestige of human form has been drained out of it.

Usually these revelations come as a flash, then it's back to "Good Vibrations" and memories of Bounceland.

Still, these hints create enough room for pity. Toward the end of the book, he is at an elementary school in Bexley, the swank Ohio suburb that spawned him, speaking to young children. A child stands and asks Bob if there's anything he wishes for. "Yes," he says immediately, "I wish I could be you."

That reply is pure Bob. Standing before the children he professes to adore, telling them that life isn't worth living. That he--a famous, rich, successful man--would gladly strip himself of his life's attainment if he could crawl back into the womb of kindergarten and nurse on a bottle of Bosco.

He doesn't mention whether the teachers hooted him off the stage at this point. One hopes they did, though misplaced respect probably kept them silent, grinding their teeth.

At one point, Bob complains that, at 50, he can no longer be an up-and-comer, "a hotshot." Once again, he's wrong. Bob Greene is still a newcomer, the ingenue of the geriatric set. What he has really written is The 70 Year Dash 20 years prematurely. The comments that sound whiny and senseless coming out of a 50-year-old would carry a bit of meaning in the mouth of somebody 70. Well, maybe 80. And in ill health.

These are the people against whom Bob should measure himself. And does--he occasionally lets slip what age he associates himself with. On tattoos, he ponders, "You think about what this is going to look like when they, and their skin, get to be your age. You try to imagine Dennis Rodman at 70."

So buck up, Bobby! You're still ahead of the curve, still the new kid on the block. Pull up a rocker and set a spell. We'll all catch up with you, by and by.

The 50 Year Dash: The Feelings, Foibles, and Fears of Being Half a Century Old, by Bob Greene (Doubleday: $21.95).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Jeff Heller.

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