Tuesday, 23 September 2008

"The American Dream", by Harmon Leon (Nation Books)

An amusing, poignant look at the less-than-ordinary pursuits of happiness

Harmon Leon, an award-winning author and journalist, is a very funny man. In American Dream, he has taken a magnifying glass to the various different ways that people in the US pursue their idea of what constitutes "the American Dream". America is perhaps the epitome of the individual-centric nation. Despite that, politicians for generations have talked about what the American Dream might be, usually coming up with a rather conservative, standard ideal of owning your own home, a car or two, a secure and well-paid job and being able to care for your family (and eat whatever you like). All well and good for the majority of Americans, but what about those others who have a different idea in mind? How would one go about defining the American Dream? "In order to better understand the ellusive definition behind these words, I'll infiltrate the lives of vastly different people," Leon writes. And so, he infiltrates the subcultures of...
  • Illegal Immigrants: dreaming of being able to earn a decent wage in the Land Of The Free, mainly because there's no work in the broken economies of their home countries, they put up with back-breaking conditions to earn just over $8/hour. Leon decides that he's going to see what it's acatually like, to start in America as an illegal, so he goes to an "Illegal Immigrant Park/Resort" to experience the crossing, without actually doing it. It's a rather bizarre experience, and one he describes in vivid detail. A more serious chapter, Leon gives a good account of what life really is like for illegals in America, balancing the humour nicely.
  • "Carnies": travelling carnival workers who all seem to think Leon's an undercover cop, all of whom seem to be complete freaks who have done jail-time. ("No matter how hard I try freaking out the carnies, they always end up freaking me out more.")
  • Bible-thumping Christians: a common enough subject for anyone studying the American experience/experiment. While Leon deals with them very well, I can't help but feel that Matt Taibbi and Nicholas Guyatt do a better, funny-and-terrifying-at-the-same-time job of trying to explain the ever-increasing number of evangelical Christians in America.
  • Celebrity Impersonators: "The American Dream is in thrall to the ideal of 'celebrity'... In this cult-of-celebrity obsessed world, simply looking and acting like a famous celebrity is an American Dream." Following an intro by an Ozzy Osbourne impersonator, Leon infiltrates the world of celebrity, attending a convention for impersonators in Las Vegas (where else?) populated by plenty of Cher, Shania Twain, Elvis and Willie Nelson impersonators. Leon tries to pass for a blonde Austin Powers impersonator, with some pretty funny results.
  • Leon also looks at life as a pot-farmer, a gun-toting military-nut, a swinger (a very funny chapter), and a Hollywood hopeful (reality TV, too).
Sprinkled with serious observations and facts, Leon manages to get across the real nature of all these people; describing the difficulties faced by illegals, for example, but also painting honest portraits of his subjects that both entertain and enlighten. If I had but one criticism it would be that his editor needed to weild some scissors a little more enthusiastically, and perhaps reign him in a little more, as he's not as skilled at maintaining the funny as some other authors. (The chapter about Carnies was too long and repetitive, for example.) Nevertheless, The American Dream is filled with laugh-out-loud moments and satirical fun at the expense of Leon's subjects.

If you're down with American humour, you'll like this a lot. Underlying the whole book is a large dose of silliness - Leon will make fun of anyone and anything - the book has brilliant, wry one-liners throughout. And because Leon doesn't focus solely on the usual subcultures (i.e. Christians), The American Dream will surely have something for anyone interested in reading a little more about the less-"standard" people in America.

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