(New Society Publishers, November 2011; 300 pages, $16.95.)
Outrageous, snarky, "madly engaging," bileful—these are a few of the terms that have been used to describe author and social critic James Howard Kunstler.1 But he's actually a great deal more than these things, as anyone who's really come to know him, even if only through his books and Internet postings, can tell you. His most personal writings reveal a human, vulnerable, wonderfully versatile, cheerful side that few people know exists.
At the same time, is there anything wrong with having a little fun with his contentious public persona? Journalist Duncan Crary, who's come to know Kunstler quite well, doesn't think so. His new book, The KunstlerCast, draws on four years' worth of weekly interviews with the author—in the course of an eponymous Internet talk show–and lumps them under the tagline "the tragic comedy of suburban sprawl." And Kunstler himself seems to be onboard, describing his diatribes as having "sort of evolved into a comedy act." So I say, why not?
This book is indeed great fun. Kunstler is a self-taught advocate of healthy urban environments and a vehement foe of suburbia, and he's at his wittiest when critiquing the human habitat of our times. In one of my favorite KunstlerCast lines, he points out the absurdity of the purely decorative porches on so many suburban homes: "The porch doesn't function, unless you're a leprechaun and you're eighteen inches high." He also gives a hilarious description of the Seattle Central Library: "It's a monstrous, hard-edged, glassy, steely heap...that looks like something that Keanu Reeves should step out of to inform the world that civilization as we know it is ending." (Indeed, Kunstler would feel vindicated by a Seattle Post Intelligencer article headlined "Too many people getting lost in new downtown library."2)
Crary and Kunstler are kindred spirits whose careers have followed similar paths. Kunstler, a theater graduate from the State University of New York, worked as an editor for Rolling Stone in the 1970s. Crary, a Gen X-er and fellow New York native, was a reporter before branching into communications consulting and new media. By the time his weekly show with Kunstler had begun, he had long been following Kunstler's work and looking to him for quotes in news articles he was writing on suburban sprawl. The two of them did their first podcast together in 2008, and it was such a success that it became a regular thing. There are now close to 200 episodes, all of which can be heard for free at Kunstlercast.com.
The book is made up of several thematic chapters woven out of show excerpts. Crary was careful to leave Kunstler's words as they were spoken but changed his own to allow for smoother transitions. He also peppered the book with lively sidebars in shaded boxes, mostly monologues by Kunstler on topics like the myth of country living in the suburbs, the inanity of modern-day living rooms and the promise held by experimental planned communities like Seaside, Florida.
The KunstlerCast draws on a philosophy about urban planning that Kunstler acquired over a career spent researching and writing about it. He first began this research as a reporter for The New York Times Magazine in the late `80s. One of his articles, an in-depth piece on why America had become so ugly, led to the book The Geography of Nowhere, which stands as the seminal indictment of suburbia. Kunstler continued this line of inquiry into subsequent books and also became affiliated with a traditional town planning movement called the New Urbanism. The vocabulary that he came up with for addressing America's built landscape is carried over into the KunstlerCast book, which begins with a "Glossary of Nowhere."
The first thing that Kunstler emphasizes about our built environment is its severe case of gigantism: everything's scaled to cars, not people. In one interview with Crary, he recalls walking into a Wal-Mart and finding it as overwhelming as the warehouse to which the Ark of the Covenant is banished in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He also describes parking lots in which "you end up feeling like you're in a surrealist painting where you can't find the horizon."
Crary complements these descriptions with an equally eloquent one from The Geography of Nowhere–indeed, the one for which the book is best known. It's a feverish rant on suburbia's "jive plastic commuter tract home wastelands, the Potemkin village shopping plazas with their vast parking lagoons, the Lego-block hotel complexes, the 'gourmet mansardic' junk-food joints, the Orwellian office 'parks' featuring buildings sheathed in the same reflective glass as the sunglasses worn by chain-gang guards, the particle-board garden apartments rising up in every meadow and cornfield, the freeway loops around every big and little city with their clusters of discount merchandise marts, the whole destructive, wasteful, toxic, agoraphobia-inducing spectacle that politicians proudly call 'growth.'"
Besides its ugliness and its pernicious effects on the human soul, suburbia has yet another, ultimately more fatal, drawback: it won't run at all without cheap, plentiful oil. This is a message that Kunstler has been trying to spread since 2005, with the publication of his sobering The Long Emergency. His grim predictions in that book earned him a reputation as a "doomer" in some circles, no matter the impeccably rational basis for his arguments. Kunstler's vision of our impending Long Emergency is a major theme of the podcast interviews. Crary quotes him as saying that in failing to plan for the inevitable decline of oil, we "ran ourselves up a cul-de-sac in a cement SUV without a fill-up."
His Long Emergency consists of a wrenching period of transition from today's unprecedented affluence to a resource-constrained future. The chief economic activities of this future will be farming and recycling the scraps of our present society. Kunstler does, however, find plenty of reason for hope; he just objects to doling out hope freely. "I am not a hope dispenser to passive consumers of hope," he tells Crary.
Hope, in his view, is not something that can be handed from one person to another. It's something that people generate for themselves as they successfully meet difficult circumstances. Kunstler believes that today's young people will have to be heroic in order to rise to the challenges ahead. As they migrate back into the countryside to work the land, they'll discover that the legions of now-abandoned towns and small cities across America still have much of their original fabric intact. Reactivating them in an era that once again requires walkable communities will be quite doable, believes Kunstler. And he finds that cause for hope.
Kunstler has many other creative endeavors besides his social criticism–so many, in fact, that it's delightfully difficult to put a finger on any particular one that defines him. He's authored nearly a dozen novels, ranging from coming-of-age to farce to post-oil speculative fiction; published a three-act play; performed in a traveling theater troupe; and even been a longtime sur le motif painter of the countryside around his home in upstate New York, highway strips and all. It's a measure of how all-encompassing The KunstlerCast is that it hits on most of these creative pursuits.
The circumstances that first brought the KunstlerCast show into being were quite extraordinary. The only other example that comes to mind of a program in which the same celebrity guest appears every week is Me and Mario. This was a long-running NPR series in which Alan Chartock spoke weekly with then-New York Governor Mario Cuomo. Chartock eventually adapted their interviews into a book much like the KunstlerCast book, titled Me and Mario Cuomo: Conversations in Candor. However, Crary's superior volume has the guts to truly grapple with the harsh realities shaping our times–realities that few dare discuss out in the open.
1. Reihan Salam, "Heralding The End Times: Review of: World Made by Hand," New York Sun, arts and letters sec., Mar. 5, 2008: 15; E.J. Hurst, "The KunstlerCast: Conversations with James Howard Kunstler by Duncan Crary," New Society Publishers, Nov. 10, 2011, http://www.newsociety.com/blog/2011/The-KunstlerCast-Conversations-with-James-Howard-Kunstler-by-Duncan-Crary (accessed Jan. 26, 2012); Leslee Goodman, "Empire of the Stunned: Social critic James Howard Kunstler believes that what killed America's economy could make society stronger," Utne, January-February 2010 issue, http://www.utne.com/Environment/Empire-of-the-Stunned.aspx (accessed Jan. 29, 2012).
2. Kery Murakami, "Too many people getting lost in new downtown library," Seattle Post Intelligencer, Sep. 4, 2006, http://www.seattlepi.com/local/article/Too-many-people-getting-lost-in-new-downtown-1213582.php (accessed Jan. 27, 2012).