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Pagan Kennedy's Living: A Handbook for Maturing Hipsters (The Pagan Kennedy Project)
By Pagan Kennedy
Santa Fe Writers Project (SFWP)
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
Award-winning science writer and New York Times editor Pagan Kennedy began her career in 'zines. In 1997 St. Martin's published Pagan Kennedy's Living: A Handbook for Aging Hipsters. This year the Santa Fe Writers Project (SFWP) reissued Kennedy's work, tweaking the title slightly, the handbook now for Maturing Hipsters. Kennedy explains the term "hipsters," locating it in a specific historical moment and a specific intellectual/cultural attitude. When it first came out in the '90s, it aimed at a readership who grew up in the Seventies. At the time, the hipster was someone living in a communal house (roommates and/or lovers coming and/or leaving at random intervals) and taking the position of cultural non-conformity. Today both the word and individuals labeled as hipsters have devolved into caricature. The iconic representative of rebellion ended not with a bang but with a Facebook meme.
Pagan Kennedy's Living mixes together exasperated screeds, oddball interviews, and sensible decorating advice. In her opening "Manifesto-orama" she writes, "But there is one niggling problem. You've become to notice that, while this is a perfect place to be young, it's a hard place to be, well, not so young." Ever notice how your favorite tunes have slowly migrated from the hip alternate rock station to the classic rock station to, finally, the oldies station. When did U2 and Pearl Jam constitute The Oldies? That's Elvis and Bill Hailey and the Comets? Generational drift is a bitch.
We get another wonderful travel essay, about Kennedy's trip to the American Southwest. Her take on Sonora pop spirituality and the sensory overload of Las Vegas are idiosyncratic and astute. There is a visual essay on thrift store chic. For fans of Donna Kossy's Kooks, Kennedy offers a sympathetic portrait of Les U. Knight, founder of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. In addition, we get comics about therapy zombies (although Kennedy still sees therapy as valuable) and men who won't put out (complete with fake commentary by Camille Paglia, bell hooks, Susan Faludi, and Andrea Dworkin). Kennedy has a genius for mixing a socially relevant topic with just the right amount of humor. Without the humor, she'd come across as a shrill scold, and goddamn! we have enough of those these days.
It was fun reading this, including the hilarious format. Pagan Kennedy's Living has the look and feel of a middle school workbook. It's a small but pivotal editorial decision that reaps major rewards. As a cusper, I was born in the late 1970s, placing me between Gen-X and The Millennial generation. So while it didn't directly address my generation, I read it with a mix of nostalgia and enjoyment. In 1997 I was a freshman in college, enjoying dial-up Internet, post-grunge music, and Michael Bay's cinematic masterpiece The Rock. Yet Pagan Kennedy's Living stands on its own, without the crutch of Nineties nostalgia. As Nineties nostalgia reaches toxic levels (I'm looking at you, Fuller House.), it is reassuring to know The Pagan Kennedy Project can reintroduce readers to a unique voice in American letters.
Out of 10: 9.5