One of the hoariest clichés of American popular culture is anti-suburban sentiment. Common throughout literature, film, and television, it arguably received its most tuneful expression in Malvina Reynolds’s 1962 song “Little Boxes,” which disparages the tracts of affordable housing that were blanketing America, from sea to shining sea, during the postwar boom: “Little boxes made of ticky tacky.” The song has the inhabitants of those homes in its crosshairs, too. Men who go to college, get married, raise a family, go into business, and behave in a predictable fashion are not to be commended for partaking of and perpetuating the everyday joys of life. Like their houses, “they’re all made out of ticky tacky / And they all just look the same”: mediocrities and vulgarians.
The American suburbs and their residents were a favorite subject of major novelists at midcentury. Traditional menswear stood for soul-killing conventionality in Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955), which presented the quest for the middle-class lifestyle as a fool’s errand. Toss in Max Shulman’s Rally Round the Flag, Boys! (1956), John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle (1957), and John Updike’s Rabbit, Run (1960), and you have the beginnings of a genre that proved sufficiently durable to spawn such distinguished later entrants as Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985) and Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm (1994). These books may have strayed stylistically from the picket-fence parody of “Little Boxes,” but they stayed true to the genre’s trite anti-conformism.