A Lost Generation

The pure products of America go crazy
William Carlos Williams,”Spring and All”

“I was lost in the sand,” says Terry Jackson, a sixteen-year-old black New Haven drug dealer, recounting to William Finnegan the most recent violent episode in his life as a member of a drug-dealing “posse” in constant danger of attack by rival posses. “I’m still lost in the sand. You can look in my face and tell.” Except for his streetwise eloquence, Terry Jackson might be speaking for any number of his adolescent contemporaries in America and certainly for the dazed, drifting, disenfranchised young people of whom William Finnegan has written with compassion and patience, if sometimes rather too much patience, after six years of “knocking about” the country investigating the “postmodern poverty of the late twentieth century” with its proliferation of underclasses, black, Hispanic, and white.

Cold New World: Growing Up in a Harder Country belongs to a swelling nonfiction genre that might be called memoirist-reportage-a hybrid of investigative research and interviewing, sociopolitical analysis, and first-person narration that is often couched in the present tense, like the voice-over of a documentary film rolling past our eyes. In these works, “objectivity” is not the point; the writer breaks the frame to acknowledge, as William Finnegan does in his introduction, that his reporting method is “unscientific” and that the lines between himself and his subjects have “eroded.” He may acknowledge emotional attachments with certain of his subjects (as Finnegan admits identifying with an eighteen-year-old druggie neo-Nazi skinhead named Jaxon Stines from Antelope Valley, California, not far from the suburb where Finnegan grew up in the 1950s), and he may intervene in his subjects’ lives, further distending the historical perimeters of old-style journalism. In memoirist-reportage there is usually the disclaimer that the writer has been drawn to his subject for personal, subjective reasons, and that the work is not meant to be “representative”-as Finnegan makes clear in his epilogue, aptly titled “Midnight at the Casino”:

How representative are the kids in these stories? I did not, as I have said, go looking for types, and I’ve concentrated on communities caught in social and economic downdrafts-places where relatively few young people are, for example, going on to college at a time when most young Americans go to college. So this is not a representative cross-section of contemporary youth. And yet I believe that nearly everyone, young and otherwise, feels these downdrafts, feels their fetid, chill breath on the streets and in the culture if not closer to home.

Memoirist-reportage is a genre with an obvious appeal for contemporary tastes in which the “personal” (including the frankly confessional) is freely mixed with the “impersonal.” We aren’t presented merely with the subject, in Finnegan’s case four disparate yet kindred young people and their families, friends, and worlds, but with the writer’s continuous meditation upon the subject, his interludes of doubt and indecision, his moments of embarrassment, his stubborn and touching idealism, his insights, his fascination, one might…

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