The American Nightmare

James Howard Kunstler and the tragicomedy of suburban sprawl

Two weeks after the bailout heard round the world, and with three weeks to go until one of the most anticipated presidential elections in American history, journalist-turned-novelist James Howard Kunstler’s got a lot to say. He loves sermonizing about the cause-effect relationship between suburban sprawl and everything from obesity to American dependence on oil. And he’s saying it all via the Web, through a weekly podcast that offers some of the smartest, most honest urban commentary around—online or off.

Kunstler knows a little about the topic. Since the mid-90s, he has written four non-fiction books about suburban development and oil. His first work on the subject, The Geography of Nowhere, discussed the effects of cartoon architecture, junked cities, and a ravaged countryside, as he put it. The tomes that followed—Home From Nowhere, The City in Mind, and The Long Emergency—pushed hard on taboo topics like a post-oil America. His books spurred the original podcast idea and offer constant fodder for his shows.

Kunstler’s show, dubbed KunstlerCast, highlights the tragic comedy of suburban sprawl. He always manages to relate the topic to current issues. In recent episodes, he’s attributed our current financial mess to the American living arrangement and the subprime mortgage failure, forecasted the grave impact the oil situation will have on Americans living in suburbia, and spouted on subjects like the vice presidential candidates, the future of airline travel, even tattoos.

“The subject [of suburban sprawl] itself is kind of endlessly fascinating, since we’ve gone to such extremes to torture ourselves with this idiotic arrangement of how we live,” Kunstler says. “For example, the enormous subject of our happy motoring program is so rich that you could spend hour after hour discussing its bizarre angles, everything from the agony of commuting in southern California to the insane costs of running cars for every member of the family.”

Kunstler is frank, uncensored, and entertaining, deeming no topic off limits. Just listen to his take on McCain’s vice presidential pick, Governor Sarah Palin. “It was a gross and outrageous act of pandering that is now, pardon the metaphor, standing naked before the public for what it is,” Kunstler says. “Now, whether Sarah Palin will appear naked before the public is another question…[McCain] basically picked this Barbie doll with glasses on who looks like one of the secretaries in a porn movie setup.”

Though Kunstler is trying to rebrand Republicans “The Party That Wrecked America,” he doesn’t reserve his anger for the GOP. In a two-part episode entitled “One City Block,” Kunstler and co-host Duncan Crary (who also produces the shows) walked the streets of Kunstler’s hometown, Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and described what they saw. The podcaster bemoaned the landscaping and parking situations, and praised the cohesion of small towns.

“We went on a shopping spree and got 11 different kinds of street trees that behave differently…Some of them are totally inappropriate,” Kunstler says about the landscaping on Broadway, the city’s main street. “They planted one red maple. It just sort of sticks out like a sore thumb, like a sore, red thumb. Why did they have to get a red maple?”

He moves on to parking. “I think diagonal parking would probably be a better thing all and all. But since we’re sort of at the end of the automobile age, I sort of don’t give a shit anymore.”

He eventually returns to suburban sprawl. “The rest of America doesn’t function this way. Everybody’s in their car, going through the drive-in at the cappuccino place, drinking the cappuccino in their car,” he says. “They don’t get to see other people. When we came into the coffee shop here, I saw three or four people who are good friends of mine, not just casual folks you say hello to.”

Kunstler’s honesty and frankness don’t offend most listeners. Rather, these attributes engage even those who fall on the opposite side of the political spectrum. Take Mike Schaeffer, a conservative, forty-something health plan administrator and father of five from Troy, N.Y. He listens to the KunstlerCast weekly. “Some of what [Kunstler] has to say is rather controversial, but in many ways, it’s right on the money,” he says. “He challenges his listeners to really think critically about what it is that we’re seeing.”

Just two weeks ago, for example, as the House of Representatives got ready to vote on the $700 billion bailout package, Kunstler spent all but five minutes of a podcast condemning the financial sector’s stranglehold on the American and world economies. In the remaining five minutes, Crary and Kunstler tied the bailout discussion back to urbanism, with a segment on the inherently American idea that you’re not successful unless you own a house. Kunstler called the notion sentimental nonsense that would lead to a further downward spiral in the housing market.

This no-holds-barred attitude about suburbia brings nearly 9,000 people to the podcasts each week, according to Crary. It’s why, in July, KunstlerCasts were downloaded 32,000 times (the highest download month to date). It’s also one of the main reasons John Merrall, a disc jockey for a Canadian radio station, airs Kunstler’s show every Saturday morning.

“I appreciate when he addresses mundane topics like urban planning,” says Merrall, who resides in Hamilton, Ontario, a place he calls uninhabitable due to the disappearance of high-paying union jobs and movement away from the city center. “I’d like to hope that airing Kunstler’s podcast on CFMU might help get just a few more people interested in the idea of…making my city more livable.” Plus, he added, “Kunstler’s fun to listen to.”

Kunstler aims to please. “I consider myself a prose artist, someone who is happy to function in fiction and nonfiction…and to some extent, an entertainer,” he says. “One of the hallmarks of my work is that it’s comic. It’s explicitly comic.”

A common Kunstler refrain—the Samuel Beckett quote “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness”—pretty well sums up this man.“He is really funny. The subjects he talks about are really dark,” Crary says. “I don’t think people would listen to him if he weren’t funny.” But he is, and the medium seems to work.

Schaeffer likes the accessibility of podcasts. “You used to listen to AM radio a lot,” he says. “Podcasting is the next generation in communication on a very wide scale.” Merrall likes that Kunstler covers a topic that, in his opinion, isn’t covered enough: “He’s addressing issues that certainly aren’t getting much traction in the mass media. And even if they were, I don’t think you could trust the mass media to give those issues a fair treatment.”

Whether Kunstler’s podcasts will continue gaining traction and popularity remains to be seen. Perhaps more people will tune in now that Kunstler has appeared on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report. Without question, Kunstler will never stop talking about suburban sprawl. “There’s a lot to say about it, especially since we’re so determined to keep on doing it in the face of circumstances that are telling us we better change our behavior,” he says. “It’s a fascinating tragic spectacle.”

To check out audio files, transcripts and the listener discussion forum, go to the KunstlerCast Web site. The toll-free listener comment line is (866) 924-9499.

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Michele Wilson is a freelance writer who lives in New York City.