It is salutary, I think, to be reminded of how insulated we may be by the weight of our sheer numerousness, and the accident of being young at a time of economic optimism and social change. It is a kind of entitlement, and like all such, it’s more easily perceived by those that don’t have it than those that do. But I am irked by the way she invokes “hippie” as an easy umbrella for any number of warring attitudes. It’s a kind of shorthand — like her frequent use of the phrase “cutting edge” — which is easier to tolerate in the confines of journalism than at book length.
More problematical, by focusing only on the lives of people Powers knows, the book’s map of modern bohemia is as disproportionate as a Mercator projection. Led by her informants’ choices, she records the lives of many music-store clerks and secondhand-clothes dealers, offers a sampling of feminist sex workers and underground-band members, and makes the barest mention of people working in alternative cybercommunities. And when she leaves the personal for the analytical, she sometimes finds herself straining to fit experience to the theory — in the chapter “The Cultured Proletariat,” she even succumbs for a while to that old countercultural temptation to define stealing from one’s employer as a radical political gesture.
Oddly enough, for all the affinities of our youths, the incident Weird Like Us recalls most vividly to me occurred when I, like Powers now, began to define myself as a grown-up. One year into motherhood, I found myself onstage in a television sound studio facing a live audience of women mostly 10 and 20 years older than myself who were impatiently awaiting the appearance of the talk show’s next guest, Tom Jones. Bad enough to be the man-in-the-unbuttoned-shirt’s warm-up act, but my topic was how society conspired to relegate even articulate, savvy feminists like myself to near invisibility the minute they procreated. One glimpse of the ranks of blocky maternal bodies in pastel pantsuits glowering in my direction was enough to make my voice squeak. Oh, I was right enough about the conspiracy, but they were right about me, too. To be confident is to be, at some level, clueless.
But, as Powers suggests, the confidence is necessary. It’s how things start: movements and marriages, bands and families, innovative theories and iconoclastic practices. (And for that matter, those Tom Jones fans were not exactly going gentle into that good night, either.) In the final chapters of Weird Like Us, Powers looks at her now-adult generation and finds that bohemia has become less an idea than a principle, a way of standing aslant to one’s own life, a form of conscientious objection. The diminution of youth’s invincibility has been compensated by the discovery that it has, in the best countercultural tradition, gone underground. There, she suggests, if we are vigilant, it can be found at any age, bubbling along as self-reliance, eccentricity, and a kind of brave, clear-eyed contrariness.
WEIRD LIKE US: MY BOHEMIAN AMERICA | By ANN POWERS Simon & Schuster | 287 pages | $23 hardcover