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There is much to contemplate in Margo Phillips’ first novel. The first thing is the title itself: BoomerAngst - a title that clearly makes reference to the ‘Baby Boomer’ generation - those born just after the end of World War II. But BoomerAngst also has connotations of Boomerangs, which, by definition, come back. The significance of this metaphor in the book is explained by the narrator and central character, Jamie Willoughby, as a manifestation of resilience on the part of a generation, referred to by the all-inclusive term "hippies", born in the mid-Forties. It was this generation which renounced the consumerism of the 1960’s through music, love-ins, sit-ins, protests against the Viet Nam War, mind-expanding drugs, free expression and communal experiments. Jamie and her friends were part of this movement which begins to dissolve in the 70’s, leaving many casualties—both of war and within society. Some become "yippies" and find financial success; others are caught between their idealism and the harsh realties of life. Still, there is the "resilience factor" and this is one of the key themes of BoomerAngst.
Jamie is a new-age Bohemian. Emerging from a Southern California middle class life, Jamie was a high school cheerleader who became a 60’s flower child turned rock’n’roll singer. Contracted to Columbia Records in the 60’s and Warner Bros. Records in the 80’s, she twice turned away from fame to espouse world peace through propagating Buddhism. After devoting 26 years as a leader in this worldwide religious organization, Jamie realizes her daily life is in shambles and on the verge of collapse. As a middle-aged single mom with two kids, she is barely able to make it paycheck to paycheck. Disillusioned and exhausted, out of options and drinking too much, she reaches a breaking point. No longer willing to continue this futile struggle, she leaves the organization and begins the battle to save herself and her children.
This is where the story begins. Making the hardest decision of her life, Jamie sends her 13-year old daughter to live temporarily with her father, leaving her apartment to her 21-year old son, while she seeks refuge with her friend and sometime lover, Scott. Her plan is to "regroup". Scott is working on a business venture, which, if successful, will give him enough money to rescue himself and his friends, including Jamie. Scott’s an eccentric genius- -world class poker player, musician and math wizard. He is also a chronic alcoholic, which gives Jamie the green light to join him in all-night drinking sessions. Suddenly, Scott suffers a life-threatening crisis and is admitted to the hospital with liver cirrhosis among other complications. Jamie’s plan takes an unexpected detour. She stays on at his house in San Fernando, California, whose residents also include Scott’s mother, brother and two dogs, seeing him through the worst of his near-death experience. This all makes for a somewhat chaotic existence. As Scott recovers, his relationship with Jamie is thrown into question and her financial burdens become increasingly onerous.
BoomerAngst moves from irreverent gonzo-style journalism to something that is much more reflective- - a daily journal of events and thoughts that these events provoke, interspersed with flashbacks to episodes in the past, when Jamie lived out the adventures of a younger ‘hippy chick’. With the situation becoming more and more grim in Jamie’s life, it might be imagined that BoomerAngst paints a bleak picture, and it is true that there is a degree of ‘rage against the machine’ and bitterness on her part. But for the most part, the events and reflections that she recounts are either pure satire or display a degree of black comedy that she is able to bring to even the most threatening situations.
Despite the difficulties that she encounters, Jamie remains positive. Her optimism is based on her spiritual and metaphysical foundation mixed with a feisty determination. In the sense of material security, it is also based on her finishing and selling this book itself. So in true meta-fictitious style, the writing of BoomerAngst becomes an important theme of BoomerAngst itself.
BoomerAngst is a multi-faceted story set in an environment (‘The Sanatorium’, as she calls Scott’s house) that is, at the same time oppressive and claustrophobic, yet also full of creative energies and without conventional rules. But through her isolated reflections, Jamie provides a vivid account of one person’s experience of the latter part of the 20th century.
CNBC recently aired a program entitled Boomerangst about the trials and tribulations of the baby-boomers. For me it was love at first sight of the word boomerangst I love words with multiple analyses and this one is a world-class prize-winner.
The word was not original with the writers at CNBC. It was taken from the title of a wrenching, almost black comedy of a novel by Margo Phillips that was published in 2000. I love the word because, behind the straightforward analysis of this word, boomer-angst, lurks another, even more telling one: boomerang-st. If this word is used to refer to a phenomenon that came back to bite us, it is lexical jewel nonpareil.
I think it could be interpreted in this light. The baby boom after World War II was a key factor in the economic recovery not only of North American, but of Europe and the Far East, as well. American productivity shot up as these men returned to work while at the same time buying cars, buying and furnishing houses, and returning to colleges that made them even more productive.
But all the profit generated by the baby-boomers (I could do an article on this word, too) is, in fact, now boomeranging as we struggle with ways to meet our social security obligations to them. They are beginning to come out of the workplace and, as a result of the even greater productivity created by computers and robots, the are being replaced by fewer and fewer workers expected to shoulder the cost of their (the baby-boomers’) social security.
Because of its dual analysis, boomerangst can be used: (1) to indicate the angst of the baby-boomers in a weak job market and (2) the nation’s angst at the social security problem. In fact, because the two templates of this word merge, it is difficult to separate the two senses. Congratulations, Margo Phillips, for an intriguing entry, however ephemeral, in the English vocabulary.
-Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog