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The Man Who Invented Saturday Morning and Other Adventures in American Enterprise.

The Man Who Invented Saturday Morning and Other Adventures in American Enterprise.

When I was a business reporter in the Midwest, I once came across a food company whose earnings were being depressed by its struggling new soft drink. The company's beverage showed a picture of Fred Flinstone and was called Yabba Dabba Dew. I always wondered if someone's career was stunted, or if a cloud of ignominy settled over some hapless young product manager, who was forever stigmatized as the guy who went down with Yabba Dabba Dew.

I was reminded of my musings when reading David Owen's collection of humorous essays, which originally appeared in Harper's and The Atlantic. Owen writes about curious backwaters of American business, such as a company in Buffalo, New York that makes high-tech frozen foods ("The Soul of a New Dessert") or a museum of failed products that exhibits Gimme Cucumber hair conditioner, Mister Meatloaf, and AfroKola, The Soul Drink (alas, no mention of Yabba Dabba Dew). The book's title essay concerns a morning cartoon show. Playing the role of a stranger in a strange land, Owen examines these enterprises and also provides first-person accounts of a Beatles memorabilia tour, a conference for Amway-like pyramid selling networks, and a meeting in St. Louis attended by people who plan meetings.

Owen makes no pretense to being a business reporter; while trying to explain the economics of the pyramid schemes he says, "At this point it begins to get a little confusing and, in truth, I don't understand how it works." He has a great eye for absurd detail and a deft touch with funny names and quotes. A lot of this book's humor sounds like "Late Night With David Letterman"--which is not surprising, since many of Letterman's gag writers are, like Owen, former staffers of The Harvard Lampoon. Like Letterman, Owen dishes out plenty of mock-serious commentary: "Clarence Birdseye's estimable achievements notwithstanding, the early history of frozen food was not an unbroken chain of triumphs... centuries flew by and human civilization advanced in ways far too numerous to describe in a single sentence, 'frozen foods technology improved.'" All that is missing is a musical riff from Paul Shaffer and the "Late Night" band.

Owen's stories make you laugh, but the aftertaste is often one of condescension. Working stiffs are devoting their futile little lives to futile little jobs, like running a Fresh 'n Frosty machine. In Owen's hands, their foibles become highly amusing for the upscale readers of magazines like Harper's and The Atlantic. "All in all, Rich Products Corporation struck me as a fun place to work," Owen says of a frozen-foods company, but his claim is unconvincing. The message from these essays is that Owen is exceedingly grateful to have escaped his hometown of Kansas City, to have graduated from Harvard, and to be a credentialed member of the East Coast witty writers guild. There is an echo in his work of another clever midwestern boy who made it big among the New York-Washington intelligentsia--Michael Kinsley, Owen's former editor at Harper's, who is thanked in the book's acknowledgements.

When he exercises a little restraint and detachment, Owen can be both funny and much more interesting. The two best essays in the book contain his descriptions of entrepreneurs--Chester Carlso, who invented Xerography, and Charles Lazarus, who founded Toys-R-Us. Here Owen writes with compassion, even admiration. There's also an excellent chapter on trade magazines like Hardware Age and Turkey World. Owen's humor here is gentler, warmer, and more entertaining--possibly because Owen himself was once an intern with Milling & Banking News. "Trade and professional magazines make some of the most esoteric reading in the world," Owen writes. "They are the forum where American business talks to itself. Flipping through them is like eavesdropping on private conversations."

The better essays also contain more about the subject matter and less about Owen, who is not as interesting as the businesses he writes about. For example, Owen goes on at length about his travels in a van that monitors satellite TV signals: "Well, Doug and I had a beer and Tim some scotch. Then I had some bourbon and Doug had another beer and Tim had some more scotch....Then we watched some sort of helicopter show." Occasionally his personal interventions into the stories are funny, but more frequently they are annoying distractions.

Maybe it's time for Owen to take on larger subjects, to work with a bigger canvas. Instead of writing about oddly named products and eccentric Beatles devotees, it would be great to read an account from Owen at ringside describing a titanic corporate takeover battle, a frenzy at the Tokyo Stock Exchange, or the greed of a plutocratic investment banker. He has already written a book attacking standardized educational testing; here's hoping Owen finds other large, deserving targets for his stylish writing and potent sarcasm.
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Author:Graulich, David
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1988
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