08/01/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

American Idyll: Childhood of a Liar

Let's call him Junior. He's ten years old, a bright boy, eyes open on the world, the youngest in a family quartet in one of those clean affluent suburbs outside a large city. Pick your city. Pick your suburb. Pick your family. Four people: Father, Mother, Sister, and Junior.

At the dinner table each evening, Father presides, tossing out pearls of wisdom between slices of roast beef.

You can't do anything in life without money, Father says. There's no such thing as too much money. Having money just means God is smiling at you. Having money means you're free. Everyone clear?

Sister and Junior nod. Mother says nothing. She can't deny the pleasure of the money. Every trip to the mall confirms the pleasure.

Father continues: And what you need in order to have money is success. That makes sense, doesn't it? If you're a success, you have money. If you don't have money, it means you're not a success. Are we on track?

Sister and Junior nod. Mother is thinking about what to wear at a charity dinner next week.

So what about success? Father asks. How do you get to be a success? You think it comes automatically? You think it drops down from a cloud? What's the secret?

He looks at the two children, Sister twelve, Junior ten, bright eyes looking back at him. They wait for the secret.

Father waves his fork at them. Success has its ways, Father says.

Then his tone becomes grave, appropriate to the revelation of a secret.

Success, Father says, likes people who look like they already have it.

The words hang there over the table, floating over the daisies that rise out of the centerpiece. Outside on the lawn, the dog is barking at something. Nice dog. Beautiful collie. Maybe the dog heard Father and says she agrees.

Junior, trying hard to cut his roast beef with adult finesse, hears the words bouncing around in his head: Success likes people who look like they already have it.

Age eleven, age twelve, age thirteen, the words are in there in his head but not yet thundering. There's too much going on as Junior dives into adolescence.

At fourteen, Junior tells Father he wants to try out for the school soccer team.

Good, Father says, Let's get you an outfit and make you look like a champion soccer player. If you look like it, they'll think that's what you are and you're in.

Junior is now remembering the old words about success. He's a middling athlete, but he does have the best outfit on the field.

At fifteen it's bicycles. Every bicycle has two wheels and handlebars, but some brands are more expensive than other brands, and one brand is always more expensive than any brand. Who wants anything but the top brand? Who wants to look like they're not a success? Who wants to look like they're not good enough for the top brand?

At eighteen, Junior gets his first automobile as a birthday present, sharp, shiny, silver convertible, brand new. Nothing but brand new. Used cars are for peons. We're not peons, Father says.

College is a whole ball game in itself. Connections, Father says. You can make important connections in college. But you need to look like you're already connected. Always look like you're already connected. You look like it, you talk like it, and you'll be connected. Forever.

For Junior, college turns out to be an unexpected struggle. What's more important, doing the grind or getting connected? No one he knows who's already connected does the grind. The frat has copies of all the exams anyway, so who needs the grind? Just get by. Get connected. Stay connected.

He gets by. Copies of the exams help. Cramming helps. He gets by and tosses his graduation cap in the air.

After college, it's an MBA. Nothing learned, but he was there, wasn't he? He has a girl who wants to get married, but her father is only a shade above a peon. He finds another girl, better fixed, more appropriate. He brings her home and she fits right in.

At thirty, Junior is married, a wife, two small children, a house in an affluent suburb outside a large city. Pick your city. Pick your suburb. He's on the executive track at a large company. Days and nights spent thinking up ways to convince the peons his company brand is better than the other brands. So what if all the brands are more or less alike? That's not the game, is it? The game is something else. Keep the stuff flying off the shelves. Keep looking like we're on top. It works. Doesn't it work? He keeps a file of what the senior executives wear, the clothes, the look, the labels. Success likes people who look like they already have it.

At forty, Junior is at his dinner table presiding over his family, two cars in his garage, a collie out on the front lawn, the collie almost a replica of the dog he knew as a child.

Big house, bigger than his old father's house. That's progress, isn't it?

At the dinner table, Junior waves his fork at his two children. Let me tell you about success, Junior says.

Outside on the lawn, the collie barks.