Quaintly Prep (Again)

(Here’s our correspondent Alan Bisbort taking on the new version of a classic 1980s text that he never liked … and still doesn’t. — Levi)

The other night in Hartford, Christopher Buckley — you know, of the Stamford Buckleys — was going on about how “uncivil” the world has become. Buckley was appearing at the Connecticut Forum, alongside fellow Yalies David Gergen and Stephen Carter, where this trio of stodgy know-it-alls were discussing the topic “The End of Civility.” That is to say, they were all quite civilly agreeing with one another that the rabble in America, online, offline or in line, were becoming altogether too rambunctious and bothersome indeed.

Of the three panelists at the forum, Buckley presented the most ridiculous spectacle. With his jaw locked tight and patrician nose pointed heavenward, Buckley oozed “prep.” The words flowed from his silver-spoon-fed lips with a sort of muted melancholy, as if he were — only with great reluctance — sharing pearls of wisdom with all the commoners gathered in Bushnell Hall who had been (by sad accident of lower births) denied the delights of sailing yachts, owning more than one house and engaging in spirited dinner repartee with the likes of William F. “Poppy” Buckley. Essentially, Christopher Buckley, a Skull and Bonesman like his Poppy, blamed all the usual suspects for the current climate of “incivility”: the Internet, “the Web,” the “blogosphere” and (hold for it) the BlackBerry (to milk his attempt at humor Buckley mock-sheepishly held up his own personal BlackBerry).

The guy was desperately, depressingly, quaintly unfunny.

Ah, but fear not, Chris. Happy days are here again because Lisa Birnbach has tossed you a security blanket. She has given her 1980 hit Official Preppy Handbook some nips and tucks, squirted some Botox into its lips and Segway’ed it into the 21st century. Now going by the more stealthy title of True Prep: It’s A Whole New Old World, the updated handbook is just as unfunny and annoying as the original. Indeed, everything about this new volume, designed by Chip Kidd (you know, of the Stonington Kidds), clangs against the Zeitgeist like rusted tin cans tied to the bumper of a Stutz Bearcat driven by Thurston Howell III.

Just this past month, for example, there were nearly 340,000 new home foreclosures in the United States, even while the unemployment benefits for thousands of Americans were running dry. Let’s not even mention the casualty figures — of soldiers and civilians — in Iraq and Afghanistan. And yet, all this grim news comes in the wake of sunnier reports about the 400 richest people in America, who saw their collective worth rise by 8 percent since last year. According to Pat Garofalo at Think Progress, “Income inequality in America is the worst it has been since 1928, with the top one percent of households earning an increasingly larger share of the country’s income.”

So maybe there is an audience for Birnbach and Kidd’s gold-plated drivel, after all.

Still, the timing for a book like this is completely wrong and the humor itself is as stale as last Christmas’s fruitcake. First published in 1980, The Official Preppy Handbook was the monogrammed flannel shirt of the Reagan Years, mirthful musings that alternately mocked the ascendant ruling class and worshipped it, largely because most of the handbook’s readers (those who weren’t reading it “ironically”) were dependent on Poppy and Mummy for spending cash. I was living in Washington D.C. when the first Preppy handbook arrived. From where I stood, it appeared to me that Reagan had unleashed the inner Gecko of the Preppy Beast even as Birnbach sought to soothe and soften it with her “humor.” Some saw The Official Preppy Handbook as gentle satire, but I simply could not.

As the decade dragged on, the preppies grew more brazen and heartless, flaunting their riches while the bodies piled up on the heating grates along Independence and Pennsylvania Avenues and the walking wounded lurched around every corner in the Nation’s Capital. The brutality was barely concealed beneath the calm preppy exterior of Reagan hacks like David Stockman, David Gergen (is there an echo in here?), Peggy Noonan and George H.W. Bush. And I, frankly, saw no use for Birnbach’s sense of humor back then — just as now — other than to rub salt into the open wounds of millions of Americans. You could practically hear the mirthless snorting chuckles of preppies as they peruse their dog-eared copies of The Official Preppy Handbook on the beach at Sciasconset or Wauwinet.

Flash forward 30 years and the economic news is even worse. If Reagan’s era was “morning in America,” this one might be dubbed “mourning for America.”

But the only thing you’ll ever hear Birnbach and her bevy of preppies mourn is a loss of civility.

Allow me to engage in a little more class warfare by flashing back to March 18, 2003.. That’s the date when Barbara Bush set the bar for all things True Prep. On ABC’s Good Morning America, the former first lady was asked about the carnage that her son, the ultimate preppy, had unleashed with his invasion of Iraq.

“Why should we hear about body bags and deaths,” Barbara pooh-poohed. “Oh, I mean, it’s not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?”

Not relevant. There’s the phrase I was looking for. We are simply not relevant to the preppy consciousness. Birnbach and Kidd make that abundantly clear in this new handbook.

Still, the prep mind is not entirely clueless about how things have changed since the sainted Ronald Reagan. Even though their net worth continues to rise despite having not done an honest day’s work in the interim, Muffy, Corky, Pooky, Mummy, Poppy, Holden, and all the other Birnbach-ian characters still need a security blanket to see them through this most uncivil of new millennia. True Prep: It’s a Whole New Old World is just the ticket.

Goodness gracious, Birnbach ejaculates, preppies now have to rub shoulders with smarter, more gifted, more energetic, more idealistic and less entitled people named things like Rajeem, Otis, Rachel, (these are Birnbach’s words), and…I wish I were making this up.

Here are some (not fake) pearls of wisdom from Birnbach’s new handbook:

• “Any job that helps people really far away (microfinancing in Africa, feeding children in Haiti, and so on) is incredibly prep.” (That “and so on” speaks volumes, doesn’t it?)
• “There’s money and there’s big money.”
• “White lies are “the lubrication of polite society.”
• “Rehab is “the new boarding school.”
• “Where would preppies be without Ralph Lauren?”

True Prep contains sidebars on essential prep activities like “shopping as recreation, “Truly, Madly, Deeply Preppy: The Second Marriage,” club drinks (try the “Arnold Palmer,” it’s exquisite!), exotic cures for hangovers, recipes for the quail you just shot, codfish cakes (even though cod is nearly gone from our oceans), crew neck sweaters, cigars. “And so on.”

Birnbach and Kidd helpfully provide a “true prep master reading list” that includes books by Louis Auchencloss, David Brooks, Alison Lurie, Ogden Nash (!), John O’Hara, Booth Tarkington and, of course, William and Christopher Buckley. Their taste in music is even worse (don’t ask).

In summary, Birnbach and Kidd’s book manages to be both churlish and tasteless, which probably means it will be required poolside reading in Newport, Nantucket and Palm Beach.

12 Responses

  1. I think “poppy” is a nickname
    I think “poppy” is a nickname given to George H. W. Bush, not William F. Buckley. Of course, it’s rather disturbing that I would even know such a thing.

  2. Great review Alan!
    I was just

    Great review Alan!

    I was just reading review of this book on The Awl yesterday and it was just as scathing as this one.

    The book hasn’t come across so well while reading this review, it occured to me that izod shirts were quite the hot item when I was in high school in Nigeria. Scary to think Preppy fashion made it that far.

  3. Bill, you are RIGHT (by which
    Bill, you are RIGHT (by which I mean, of course, correct). Buckley’s dad is nicknamed “Pup” (if one goes by the title of his recent bestselling memoir about his parents). Pup, Poppy, Chip, I always have trouble when grown men go by names like this. (for some reason, I always picture Sonny Drysdale in the Beverly Hillbillies when I hear names like this).

    Also, Mayowa, thank you for the nice feedback. After reading your comment, I tracked down the review on The Awl, which was well written but I am amazed that the writer recalls the original fondly. Maybe my standards were higher back then, but I think those “101 Things to do with a Dead Cat” books were funnier and more to the point than The Official Preppy Guide. As stated in my piece above, the book just “softened” what I saw, personally, as a very harsh social perch with very harsh real world consequences.

    So, Izod shirts made it to Nigeria? What about madras belts with whales on them and cherry red pants?

  4. Since I write about Americans
    Since I write about Americans of the past who were struggling to survive, and I live in a state in which corporate greed has left us with a 12 percent (low estimate) unemployment rate, what strikes me about these people’s concerns is how spectacularly irrelevant they are to “the reality community.”

  5. Alan, I was in a hurry when I
    Alan, I was in a hurry when I posted my first reply, but I should have added that I really like your article. Here’s part of an old poem I wrote a few years ago:

    I still have my Izod shirt
    And wear it when I mow the lawn,
    Paint the house, or change oil in my car.
    It is my tie-dye reminder that the bank can kiss my ass.
    Coffee’s ready.

  6. I remember the original
    I remember the original release of this because I was working in a bookstore in 1982, and we had an order for it that took months and months to arrive. Importing special-order books in Australia 30 years ago was a prolonged form of torture, but the customer was persistent in his need. Just not needy enough to ring a bookstore in LA or New York and arrange it all himself.
    So when the damn thing finally arrived I had to see what made it so special. Three or four pages convinced me it was nothing more than an elaborate in-joke. I sure hope that man felt his wait was worth it.
    And as I recall, we couldn’t get enough copies of 101 Uses etc etc to keep up with the demand.

  7. Very good essay. When Reagan
    Very good essay. When Reagan was elected, I said that his goal was to create a third-world country in which the vast majority of people toiled in service to the rich. The Republicans are still working on this, and they’re getting there.

  8. Forgot to mention – apropos
    Forgot to mention – apropos our topic: Yesterday two Yahoo news items were juxtaposed. The first: seniors denied social security increase for second year. The second: Kim Kardashian bowls in heels.

  9. Well, Thurston Howell III
    Well, Thurston Howell III certainly didn’t consider Yalies to be civilized in any way.

    Remember when the ape man showed up and they set him down in front of a plate of food. Mr Howell said, “if he holds his fork with his left hand he’s a Harvard man and if he holds his fork with his right hand he’s a Princeton man”. The ape man (who was in fact a fake ape man) grabbed the plate and put his face in to it and ate without utensil. “Egads, a Yale man!” exclaimed Mr Howell in shock and disgust.

  10. “clangs against the Zeitgeist
    “clangs against the Zeitgeist like rusted tin cans tied to the bumper of a Stutz Bearcat driven by Thurston Howell III”


  11. Unfortunately, that Howell
    Unfortunately, that Howell III “down my nose’ attitude exists in many country clubs & billiards parlor smoking rooms outside “Gilligan’s Island”. There are many disgruntled “tea party” republicans morphing into “Independents” who have a similar attitude. The ‘upper crust’ must continue to do business as usual and the heck with any of the “plebes”.

    I resent the idea of class systems in America, but the fact of the matter is that many ‘super rich’ still have that “patrician” attitude about certain folks that they don’t “cotton to”. I’m sure, however, that a bunch of folks who went to prep schools are trying to make a difference in a positive way. They don’t mind paying a bit extra on their taxes if it makes for a better society.

    There is a disconnect between the poor, middle class, & the rich. The working poor have always seemed to have trouble making ends meet. The middle class feel threatened by the recession, & the rich get through it pretty much unscathed. Nine times out of ten, “old money” keeps what it has.

    The Democrats are usually the party which does the most for unions, small businesses, the middle class, & the working poor. The republicans, on the other hand, supposedly, do the most for ‘old money’ , large corporations & the super rich. (As you may already know, I am biased in favor of the Democrats.) So the political divide becomes more like “class warfare” every election year. It seems especially true this year.

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