A Spicoli state of mind

Matthew Price, a former video store clerk, is a critic who writes for a variety of publications.

THERE'S a catch to writing a book about doing nothing: It had better add up to something or there ain't no book. Tom Lutz's history of loafers, slackers, ne'er-do-wells and lollygaggers adds up all right, to well over 350 pages. These layabouts are an opinionated lot, and Lutz has collected every scrap, taken down every statement, transcribed every screed. Slackers may avoid the humdrum demands of the working life, but they aren't necessarily lazy. Far from it: They can spend hours blowing hot air about why they avoid the grind. Society says, "Get off your duff"; the slacker volubly retorts, "Why the heck should I?"

Given his subject, it's perhaps fitting that Lutz rambles on at a slacker-like pace as he traces the rise of this lovable if exasperating cultural type. You might know him -- a few women turn up in "Doing Nothing," but slacking, it turns out, is largely a male phenomenon -- from your local video store or coffeehouse. But who knew the slacker had such an illustrious lineage? Samuel Johnson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Bertrand Russell and Jack Kerouac all issued spirited dissents to the conventions of work.

The slacker is the yin to the workaholic's yang -- each helps define the other -- thus "Doing Nothing" is as much about the nature of work as it is about trying to avoid it. "[S]lackers make big news when the world of work undergoes serious structural change," Lutz writes. The slacker resists new rules and new demands, whether those of the widget maker of 100 years ago or the dot-com blowhards in our time; they are the ones "who argue the good life is better than the good job." Reactionary nostalgists who engage in a kind of ironic protest, they use witty barbs and sarcastic quips to deflate the ideology of work. As Lutz explains, the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution and the breaking of feudal bonds created the conditions for both slacking and the work ethic. When the evangelists of capitalism were preaching the virtues of hard work in the 18th century, Johnson "was almost single-handedly inventing the slacker" with his droll, skeptical alter ego "The Idler." ("Every man is, or wants to be, an Idler.") A tradition was born.

In America, Ben Franklin was schooling colonists on how to be healthy, wealthy and wise, but a young Harvard graduate and sometime lawyer, Joseph Dennie, was having none of it. Also known as "Meander," "Samuel Saunter," "Charles Chameleon" and the "American Lounger," Dennie was "the first truly American slacker." He mocked Franklin's famous daily work schedule in a series of spoof journal entries: "Did nothing very busily till four. Seized with a lethargic yawn, which lasted till seven." Dennie was a foppish character who cultivated an aristocratic hauteur. He was no ascetic -- he loved the latest fashions; he just didn't find the new world of work suitable to his tastes. His attitude highlights one of slackerdom's most annoying traits: Dennie and his descendants think the world owes them a living.

Lutz has dug up an enormous amount of material on this subject, from film and TV, literature, sociology and economics. So crammed is "Doing Nothing" that it at times threatens to become a cultural history of, well, everything. (Lutz needed an editor with a more vigorous scalpel; his pages bulge with an excess of citation, much of it repetitive, if quite funny.) We are treated to readings of Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" and his existential refusal, "I would prefer not to"; Paul Lafargue's rousing call to arms, "The Right to Be Lazy" (1883); Jack Kerouac's "The Dharma Bums" and Allen Ginsberg's "Howl"; Douglas Coupland's "Generation X" and "Microserfs"; Mike Judge's masterpiece of white-collar satire, "Office Space"; Cameron Crowe's "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and its right-on surfer dude Jeff Spicoli (played in the film version by Sean Penn, who once didn't take himself so seriously); and C. Wright Mills' dark ruminations on the managerial classes.

This material -- and it's just a tiny sampling of Lutz's research -- is enjoyable and interesting as far as it goes, but what is he trying to tell us about work? For Lutz, "slacker subcultures have performed an important emotional function, expressing and adding to our cultures' repertoire of feelings about work." In our time, he writes, the "avalanche of slacker narratives suggests that we are just as confused and conflicted as we have ever been about work and what it should mean." Even making a distinction between who is a slacker and who isn't can get us into trouble, he contends, because the history of slackers "is also a history of complexly distorted perceptions."

In his roundabout way, Lutz is trying to say that work makes us ambivalent. Take Lutz himself, a successful author, teacher and part-time musician. He worries that he works too much -- and too little. (To be sure, writers keep odd hours -- bouts of sloth alternate with furious fits of productivity.) The funny thing about the spokesmen for slackers is that they tend be workaholics, like Johnson, whose collected works number 15 volumes, or "Slacker" director Richard Linklater, who is anything but -- he has just started production on his 18th film. Conversely, it turns out that Franklin was a bit of a slacker. Early to bed, early to rise my foot: Franklin took his breakfast late, dined late, and generally enjoyed a good time.

For the most part, slacking is a paradoxical, utopian state of mind, wished for but never achieved. In the first place, if you don't have a private income (or parental dole), "doing nothing" isn't really an option. Just who is going to pay for the "good life"? Lutz founders on this point. For the vast majority, work is a necessity -- sometimes a grim one but not always. There are plenty of folks who take pride in what they do -- yes, even the manager of the local McDonald's. Work gives life meaning and structure (which isn't to justify the nickel-and-diming of low-wage America, either). In the final analysis, doing nothing is pretty boring. The lure of the seaside hammock calls, but frankly the rest of us have to get back to work. *

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