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Twentysomething, Shmentysomething

BOOK

By Ira E. Stoll

The Twentysomething American Dream

by Micheal Lee Cohen

Dutton Books, 307pp., $20.00

As it comes of age, the generation of Americans behind the baby boomers has weathered a predictable succession of attempts to define it.

Cover stories in Time and Fortune on the "Twentysomethings," a cover story in The Atlantic on "the thirteenth generation," and a Barbara Walters special, among others, all tried to make some sense out of what novelist Douglas Coupland called "the Shampoo Generation."

Now comes Michael Lee Cohen, age 27, a Harvard Law School graduate armed with a Sheldon traveling fellowship to interview Americans in their 20s. Cohen's contribution, The Twentysomething American Dream, appears to be a sincere, well-intentioned effort to help define the generation, or to allow the generation to define itself. Ultimately, though, the book falters because of problems in executing the individual portraits at the heart of the book, not to mention the sheer difficulty of the task.

Defining a generation is difficult, for sure. To start with, Cohen must pick an age cohort to write about. He chooses the more than 40 million individuals between the ages of 18 and 29, without explaining why he chooses these ages as his parameters. Next, he admits (probably accurately), in his introduction, "there is no single word or idea that can accurately capture 40 million individuals."

That doesn't stop him from trying. In his "concluding observations," Cohen comes up with the less than earth-shattering insight that twentysomethings want a family and a comfortable life and they worry about government corruption and deteriorating race relations. This, however, is true of Americans of all ages, raising questions about the usefulness of the generational analysis.

Cohen meets some interesting people on his "cross-country quest for a generation." He brings the reader along as he visits with Dirk, a New York artist and dope dealer; Dexter, a Louisiana politician who is in it for the money; and David, a Korean-American who works in his parents grocery store in South Central Los Angeles. It's wonderful simply to have vicarious conversations with these people, to hear about their lives and dreams and work and loves and fears.

After a while, though, the profiles achieve a certain predictability. There's a nagging superficiality--while we read responses to questions about family background and the American Dream, we wonder what it's like to really spend a week, or even a day, in the shoes of these people. The reader gets the sense of having spent an hour talking to each of the people in the book, and that often fails to translate into understanding the people, or even knowing them the way Cohen would have if he had followed them around for the day.

The sameness of the form is made even more maddening by Cohen's failure to provide any narrative thread. How did he get from city to city? How did he react to meeting the various individuals? Did he change over the course of the journey?

Cohen doesn't answer these questions, apparently in the name of objectivity. He doesn't want to interfere with the stories of the people he is interviewing. That's an admirable sentiment, but it makes for dry, choppy reading. It prevents us from knowing well the one member of the generation who this book could have let us know well--the author himself.

Moreover, a collection of separate interviews of members of the twentysomething generation doesn't tell the whole story of this generation. The "who" aspect is there most of all, but the generational scene, the "what," "where" and "when," is still missing. Cohen might have learned more about the generation--and conveyed more to his readers--if he had visited places in addition to people. A singles club in Seattle or New York, a Marine boot camp, a video arcade, MTV headquarters or a college student center may reveal something of the generational flavor in the way that individual portraits can't or don't in this case.

The Twentysomething American Dream offers a fresh, intriguing look at the lives and thoughts of a diverse assortment of young people. But, Cohen notwithstanding, the generation now in college or around that age will have to keep waiting for the book that defines them in the way that Sheehy's Silent Passage or Kerouac's On The Road did for other generations.

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