In his funny, self-lacerating look at Baby Boomers, Balsamic Dreams, Joe Queenan accuses his generation of navel-gazing and premature nostalgia. He cites Carol King’s “So Far Away” as being the beginning of the Boomers’ descent into soppy, untimely ennui. To be sure, 1971 was too soon for this generation to be so goddamn depressed about the loss of time, considering the average Boomer was around 20-30. Yeah, Queenan’s making a bit of hasty generalization, but for the sake of argument let’s accept his point. If we do, we can easily see how, though not unlike other self-absorbed generations, Boomers tend to mythologize their heyday, perhaps driven to do so after the utopian dreams of the late 60s gave way to the disillusionment of the 70s and the crass materialism of the 1980s.
Most of the Boomers I know— hi, family!—tend to agree that the music and culture of their generation represents the pinnacle of human achievement, which always makes me want to smother those aging pricks in the bubbling tar of punk rock. This boomer insistence that their version of rock and roll is the greatest thing ever, that Woodstock was the event, man, and the agonizing claim that they ended a war (sure took them long enough) via smoking weed and sitting in the dirt playing bongos has always made me roll my eyes. Which is why I approached Jim McGarrah’s book Misdemeanor Outlaw with a bit of trepidation. Do I really want to read 180-pages of Boomer self-aggrandizement? I asked myself. Turns out I was wrong about the book, though not 100% wrong about Boomers.
(Side note: All writers are self-aggrandizing. I aspire to be part of the club; I wrote a memoir and asked people to read it; I write poems and get them published in corners of the internet and then ask people to peek into those corners. I am as self-aggrandizing as the next damaged bastard. Even those of my generation with the good sense to try their hand at pursuits other than writing are myopic and sentimental. So yes, we Generation Xers, and certainly the much-maligned Millennials, are equally guilty of the above accusations leveled at Boomers. And while we’re at it, so are the members of the so-called Greatest Generation. We’re all human; we’re all flawed and beautiful. We all suck.)
But here’s the thing about Misdemeanor Outlaw: it’s a book by a Boomer, not a Boomer book. Meaning it’s not overly sentimental; it’s not the equivalent of one of those goddamn Facebook memes with a photo of a 45 record adapter and the request to “Like and share if you ever used one of these!” It’s a damn fine collection of loosely connected essays that jump through time in a mostly linear manner, forming a meditation on the author’s inability to find his place among rules and authority figures. Along the way, he makes and loses friends, gets married and divorced, picks up a social disease, faces the horror of combat in Vietnam, swallows an apothecary worth of dope, and even tries his hand at the post office (which I, a former mail sorter, was delighted to read about).
The epilogue does, as expected, contain a sort of case for the 1980s—a decade I tend to romanticize—being the example of how corporate culture corrupts true art and beauty, evidenced by the rise of pop songs like “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” a nauseating tune, indeed, though the boomers would have us believe that their generations’ musicians never recorded anything as soulless and vile. One need only recall the Ohio Express’s “Yummy Yummy Yummy” to debunk that claim.
Aside from that one paragraph, I was far more engaged, amused, and compelled by Misdemeanor Outlaw than I expected to be. I was familiar with McGarrah’s work. (We share the same publisher, which, were we musicians, would make us label-mates; not sure what we are. . . Blue Herons of a feather? A Flock of Herons? Being close to “A Flock of Seagulls,” a 1980s band I assume McGarrah dislikes, I’ll go with that one.) He is a writer who seeks to recollect things with less tranquility than honesty. When McGarrah writes of his childhood, he eases up on the idolization of the all-American small town and presents not so much a Norman Rockwell Eden as a confining place of mores and customs that, even as a wee lad, he’s inclined to challenge. Soon he’s dropping out of college to enlist in the Marines, a decision that sends him to Vietnam, then to a crisis of identity. Rejecting the scare tactics and justifications of politicians, McGarrah actively opposes the war, grows his hair and embraces the hippie idealism that engulfed his generation the way Techno-solutionism is currently seducing Millennials. When the limits of commune life are reached, McGarrah seems at his most unmoored. Plagued by survivor guilt from Vietnam, unable to comfortably fit back into his hometown, and beset by uniformed men seeking to get over on him regardless of the length of his hair and manner of dress, our hero is the true representation of a man without a country, an outlaw, albeit of the misdemeanor variety.
It would be remiss not to remark on the quality of McGarrah’s humorous, unflinching prose. I laughed often while reading these pages, though the most impacting moments are the honest appraisals of the injustice done to the young men of his generation and the “true cost of these foreign policy adventures urged on by corrupt politicians and controlled by corporate interest.” Recalling his stint in Vietnam, McGarrah writes, “On quiet nights, when the dead visit, I greet them with respect and we talk. They speak of the loneliness of their fate and I speak in awe of mine.” Though I know the man is writing of a time and place I can never understand, he may as well be discussing what it means to write a book. Or, for that matter, to read one—we are seeking to converse with the dead, to compare our fates to theirs, to measure our struggle against theirs, to see what insights we can glean. The result, in Misdemeanor Outlaw, is a book for anyone interested in walking in the shoes of a man on an absurd road toward self-actualization, though not in the trendy way Boomers sought to do as they went from well-meaning young idiots to 1980s sell-outs looking to reclaim their idealistic past. McGarrah is too raw for that sort of thing. His self-examination is his own, but in offering it to us, we’re privy to insights and anecdotes that are surprisingly familiar to anyone who’s ever felt mystified at the conventions the rest of the world is all too happy to obey.