"We've put so much faith in this idea that when we get to the suburbs, it's gonna be better."

The Fingers interview with Jason Diamond on 'The Sprawl', 'The Swimmer', and getting drunk in the suburbs

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The first piece I ever wrote for Fingers was this essay about how the coronavirus pandemic had turbocharged the American impulse to getting drunk and ignore consequences at all times, and in a swimming pool whenever possible.

This was back on Memorial Day Weekend, when the US death count was juuuuust closing in on 100,000 and people were saying “this is like 33 times worse than 9/11” (lol). A video of people at a crowded pool party in Lake of the Ozarks went viral on Twitter and the New York Times had just published a nifty little hate-read about how rich people who fled the COVID-crippled city for the seemingly safe suburbs were tripping over their dicks to build $75,000 swimming pools at their newly purchased country homes. Ah, how young we were:

Huh, these things seem related somehow, said your old pal Dave, so I sat down and wrote a short piece about it. The title, “Will you ever grow up?” is pulled from “The Swimmer,” John Cheever’s famous 1964 story about drinking and despair in post-war Northeastern suburbia in which (quoting myself here out of laziness):

The characters seemed ensconced in a parallel universe, a lush paradise walled off by wealth and status that life’s common cruelties could not breach. 

Of course, there is no such place, and the seemingly privileged protagonist learns this in due time.

Real uplifting stuff, highly recommend. (As it happens, I’m currently reading Drinking In America by Susan Cheever, daughter of the late John, and it’s solid so far for entirely different reasons!)

Maybe this is the hacky English major in me talking, or maybe it’s because I grew up in the suburban Northeast myself, but I’ve always thought the relationship between booze, wealth, and consequence in “The Swimmer” was singularly suburban. The mundanity, the isolation, the crushing weight of expectation… that people who pursued the American Dream beyond city limits only to discover an empty vessel made of vinyl siding and MiracleGro and debt would turn to the bottle for an escape seems obvious to me, even though I’ve never really done the work to articulate exactly why.

Jason Diamond, on the other hand, has done that work, and more, in his new-ish book The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs. The book traces the evolution of the American suburbs, from their earliest days as godly retreats for religious reformers, through their post-war Levittown phase, and up through the present era, examining how national ideas about race, class, property, and belonging have smashed together in the ‘burbs so many times that they’ve become—somehow—a vital, decentralized barometer of this country’s culture and politics.

And as a fan of “The Swimmer” himself, The Sprawl features plenty of discussion about the role alcohol has played in shaping the American suburbs, too. So for this Fingers interview, I spoke with Diamond about drinking in the suburbs.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

Meet Jason Diamond, author of The Sprawl

Dave Infante, Fingers: Jason, thanks for getting on the phone. When did The Sprawl first start for you as a project?

It really started a long time ago. I kind of toyed with the idea of trying to figure out how to write about the suburbs that I come from, which is along the lake just north of Chicago, and about how that particular part of the country shaped American culture in so many different ways. And I was like “Oh that’s funny and weird but I don't think it's gonna work.” So then I wrote a memoir [Searching For John Hughes] which basically was that book in a way because I was like, “I'm just going to write about where I come from, and my obsession with these movies from this part of Chicago.”

When you do a book tour, I don't think a lot of people get to read the book beforehand. So [on that tour] I was expecting a lot of people to talk to me about John Hughes movies, and they did. But I'd [also] have like 5-7 people every night coming up to me and being like, “I grew up in the suburbs to man, I hated the suburbs, I was a weird kid in the suburbs and I needed to get out.” It just kind of got me thinking… What's the one thing that nobody wants to like? The suburbs.

The first piece I wrote for Fingers was inspired partly by your tweet about swimming pools over the summer, and partly by “The Swimmer” by John Cheever. The story shows at several points in The Sprawl. How important was Cheever in general and “The Swimmer” in particular in building this book?

Oh, god, I love Cheever. Cheever’s short stories have been in my life longer than I can recall fiction being important to me. I remember seeing a copy of it at my grandparents house on their shelf. They had three copies of Lee Iacocca’s autobiography, the official Jewish American Princess handbook, and John Cheever’s short stories.

That’s a real cross-section there.

Yeah I never really figured out… my dad was kind of the same. He had a copy of Portnoy’s Complaint, a copy of this 50th-anniversary of Esquire [book], and then like a bunch of Jewish books. It’s this mid-century kind of thing… you had to have a couple of things that signified that you were an intellectual.

There's something about the added lack of stimulation in the suburbs that makes it a little bit more destructive.

Right, right.

But the Cheever thing, that collection [of his stories] has always been in my life. The first thing I remember reading of him was the one where the family from Indiana goes to New York [“O City of Broken Dreams”]. I remember taking a book off the shelf and reading it and just being like, “Oh my god, that is so incredible and so dark.” Then I remember reading “The Sorrows of Gin,” which is still like, just one of the greatest titles—

Yeah, that’s an all-time title.

And just like the whole… god, that story is incredible. But then somebody was like, “Dude, read ‘The Swimmer.’” That was at like 16. I was reading a lot, but I was just reading; I don’t think I was really “getting” it. It’s hard to “get” it [at that age], like the metaphors and deeper meanings. But around the same time I'd seen the play for Death of a Salesman, and those two instances were the first times I think I really started to get literature. I was like, “Oh, I get this: disillusionment in the suburbs, he drinks too much, the marriage sucks.” I loved it so much.

One reading of all the drinking in “The Swimmer” is that it’s a mechanism to demonstrate the suburbs’ decaying effects. But as you reported in The Sprawl, some of these areas outside cities, like New Canaan, Connecticut, and Zion, Illinois, were initially created as refuges from that type of vice and decay, right?

I mean, the suburbs aren’t a monolith, but there are plenty of suburbs that were founded on certain Christian ideas. Zion was definitely one of the big ones; man, that was like, freakishly weird. Or even where I lived and went to school in Evanston, Illinois—it used to be called “Heavenston” because it was founded… I always forget [the details] but I think it was Methodist businessmen who founded Northwestern in Evanston as sort of as a competition against another Christian group who founded Lake Forest College? It was just rich Christian men trying to like make their heavenly place in what was, back then, just the wilds of Lake Michigan. It’s really funny to think about it that way.

Scroll forward to the 20th century. Adults are drinking as a way to sort of escape the mundanity of existence in the suburbs, but another thing that you touched on in The Sprawl was how suburban kids were drinking and doing drugs as an escape, too. Was that part of your experience growing up?

I’m a straight up Midwestern boy. I started drinking beer when I was like 13. My first experience drinking beer was at a hockey tournament outside of Detroit, Michigan. My friend James snuck a Rolling Rock from his dad's room, and we drank it in the sauna at a hotel, and I threw up all over the rocks.

It kind of just descended from there. I think it's kind of part of the culture, especially like, the further north you go. Like, I grew up kind of close to [Chicago], the parts of the suburbs I grew up in were almost more cosmopolitan? But then the further north you go, drinking was really ingrained in the culture, because you're getting closer in Wisconsin, where I think they probably breastfeed you Schlitz.

Right! Or blackberry brandy.

Right, brandy old fashioneds. It's part of the culture! I just actually published a piece by Brad Thomas Parsons about how Wisconsinites have helped influence American drinking culture so much in the last few years, through writers and bartenders. I was pretty exposed [to alcohol as a kid.] By 16 or 17 it was pretty normal to just show up to a party and have somebody hand me a beer.

There are a lot of problems in the suburbs, and we just don't think we need to address them.

In the book you talk about a mid-century band from outside Detroit that found motivation or inspiration or whatever in the creative force of underage drinking…

The Pleasure Seekers!

Yeah, The Pleasure Seekers, that’s them. Why is that such a familiar experience for kids in the suburbs, regardless of where they are in the country? What about [the suburban experience] makes kids particularly interested in or enamored by the idea of, you know, underage drinking and drug use?

You know, I think about this a lot. If you talk to anybody who grew up in New York City, or Los Angeles, or San Francisco, they’ll tell you “Oh all my friends had drug problems,” all these kind of stories. I feel like the difference between kids in the city who do a lot of drugs and drink, and kids in the suburbs who do, is… I think it kind of goes more unnoticed, a little bit? Or maybe it’s more of a surprise that kids or the suburbs [drink and do drugs.] It really shouldn't be at this point. It's not [that there’s] more room, because if you live in New York, you have plenty of room. I just think there's something about the added lack of stimulation you have when you're in the suburbs, that makes it a little bit more destructive.

It screws me up to say this, but before I was 20 I had a handful of friends die of drug overdoses, and two were in drunk driving accidents. And they were all in the suburbs. There’s something really weird about it. Personally, I think I was a little bit more of a nihilist when I was living in the suburbs.

I mean, suburbs are alienating spaces in a lot of the country, right? You get into this in tracking the trajectory of suburban layouts and designs from those early ones, to Levittowns, to the sprawl as we know it today. These are not necessarily pleasant places to live anymore.

This was part of the reason I made sure to go places and actually see some of the places that I was writing about. I talked about this through the lens of the movie Back to the Future. Some of these neighborhoods that 20-30 years ago were sold as the “neighborhoods of tomorrow” …like the neighborhood my parents bought their first home in, in 1982. It was a nice house, it was three bedrooms. [Today] the neighborhood is still nice, but it’s not “upper-middle class”… it’s just a “normal” neighborhood now. That's good on one hand; it’s great that more people have access to it. But on the other hand, it's kind of falling apart: the roads are all messed up, you can see the cracks in the sidewalk with like the weeds kind of popping through. It’s not the “pristine” suburb that it was in the early 1980s.

I think there's something to that. I talked about this when Trump started in on low-income housing in the suburbs. There's a lot more poverty in the suburbs than there has ever has been. There are a lot of problems in the suburbs, and we just don't think we need to address them. Like I said, like, I had friends who died of prescription drug overdoses. They were just screwing around. We didn't, we don’t really head these things off because we don't know how to define the suburbs. We just think it's just going to keep working, but it's obviously not.

Like there’s almost a misplaced faith in the restorative/corrective power of the suburbs.

I was just watching this movie called Vampires vs. The Bronx. It's kind of the modern Goonies or Monster Squad. It’s Black and Latino families in the Bronx, and one of the women in the movies like taking the money from the developers. She’s like “I’m moving to the suburbs!” It’s still an idea! Doesn't matter who it is, doesn't matter what your background is. We've put so much faith in this idea that when we get to the suburbs, it's gonna be better.

In “The Swimmer” the drinking serves as an indication that all is not well. But people feel a nostalgia for that culture and lifestyle even so. There’s sort of how drinking to excess in the suburbs existed contemporarily, which was read a certain way. And then like, we reflect back on it in a much different way. Is there tension between those two?

Have you ever seen Husbands by [John] Cassavetes? There’s these three old friends, and they’re just partying and drinking and drinking. It’s like a Cheever story, just going downhill fast. And then at the end of it, they all go back to their suburban homes. They all lived in the suburbs.

That’s the thing about the suburbs. Mad Men did a great job of portraying this. We build up our own narratives about not just the suburbs in America, but about our own our own history and our family's history. If that movie were real life, and those guys lived past whatever age—I’m talking in fictional terms—but I don’t think their kids knew how much partying their dads did when they left the suburbs. And that was a common thing!

Culturally it seems like we mythologize that type of drinking in the suburbs way more than we do about drinking in the city.

When we've been thinking about somebody like Cheever, or when we think about Mad Men… any of these television shows, or books, or movies that kind of portray these double lives, they almost always take place in the mid-century. It's people that were our grandparents’ age. People who fought in World War Two, or in Korea. I mean, my parents I think are just are neurotic Jews. They were like, “Oh, let's give him as many medications as we can, and make him go to a shrink, and that'll take care of everything.” The generation before that was like, “Eh, we’re just gonna drink. We're gonna bottle up our feelings, we’re gonna do something unhealthy to not think about all the horrible things that we’ve probably seen,” especially the men who went off to the war.

This is something I've encountered in a lot of interviews and a lot of people I've talked to—not just about the suburbs, but in general—it's that people of our grandparents’ age, didn't talk [to one another] the way we do, or [even] our parents might. They were closed off more. I think there's just some romanticism about seeing grandpa open up after he had a couple of Scotches, you know? That's why I think we're so obsessed with with heritage in America, like heritage brand[s of] clothing, heritage liquor, old-time cocktails… it’s why beer companies keep bringing back the designs from when our grandfathers drank the beer. We think there's something so cool and rugged and romantic about that, because they didn’t give as much except when they were drinking. That’s not everybody’s experience, but that is a part of the American experience.

I don’t want to spoil the book but you ended on what I’d call a cautiously optimistic note that suburbs could be better versions of what they’ve been in America. How does drinking fit in to that future? What is alcohol’s role in the more-perfect suburb of the future?

It's all about responsibility. There are irresponsible people and irresponsible companies. I love to drink, I love drinking culture, I grew up in bars. I think I learned to talk to people because… my family owned a bar. But it’s hard to say because alcohol has not just 50 or a hundred years but hundreds of years of stigma.

It's always going to be contentious, because even if people learned to temper their drinking, there's always going to be one person who's going to overdo it. I’m not trying to make light of this, but until we can figure out how to fix drinking and driving… I mean, it all goes hand in hand, because people drive too much in the suburbs.

You can drink 10 gin and tonics sitting in a country club, and that’s totally fine. But if you drink two beers at a bar near the railroad tracks, there’s a connotation.

I mean drinking and driving is in itself sort of a suburban problem, right? Mothers Against Drunk Driving was founded in the suburbs, I think. [Editor’s note: Fair Oaks, CA, a suburb of Sacramento.]

Yeah, that’s a whole… I mean, cars and the suburbs kind of came up together in the post-war [era]. Car culture is so… I like driving, but having to depend on your car for everything? That’s probably why I like drinking in the city so much.

I feel the same way! When I first moved to New York, that was eye-opening. You never have to worry about a car.

When I was like 17 or 18, and I had a fake ID and would go out to bars or go to parties in the city, I was like, “This is the greatest, no rules! I can just walk and get a taco after this.” I’ve never been in a situation where I had to hand over my keys, and I’m very happy about that.

I like to drink for fun. I'm not one to drink to numb the pain, unless I'm lying to myself. When I get drunk, it's usually when I'm hanging out with a lot of friends, (which I haven't been able to do in seven months.) But [when we do] we all just disperse from the bar and walk home. If that were possible suburbs, I do tend to see less of a stigma attached to [alcohol.] But I also think drinking has taken a back seat to drug use. The kinds of drugs that people are taking today, the stuff that’s prescribed to them… that’s become more of a hot topic [in the suburbs]. You don’t see M.A.D.D. as much.

Prescription drug use is by its nature a problem that affects people of means. Do you see a relationship between how drinking in the suburbs was viewed last century and how prescription drug abuse is viewed now?

Everything is based on class. Barstools didn’t exist in bars until after Prohibition was repealed, because bars feel less like saloons.

Sure, and they put in windows to make it brighter, and so forth.

Yeah. It’s all about class. Drinking a gin and tonic, that’s old and WASP-y and classy. You can drink 10 gin and tonics sitting in a country club, and that’s totally fine. But if you drink two beers at a bar near the railroad tracks, there’s a [negative] connotation.

“The Swimmer” is not “The Swimmer” if Neddy Merrill is drinking street wine. That doesn’t work.

Yeah if he’s drinking Mad Dog, that’s a Bukowski book. But he’s not: he’s drinking gin and tonics from a pitcher, or martinis from a pitcher.

***

Buy The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs via The Fingers Reading Room.

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