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 even say his entrapment in a welter of details his never-blinking eye can’t resist:
And the outfit Terry wore one morning in late May…did nothing to belie this impression [that Terry has been influenced by having been in jail]. It included not only the green shoes (the Bally suedes from the high old days in the Mudhole, now heavily worn) and the green hat (a bright, high-crowned, short-billed affair in a style once popular among Rastafarians-when worn sideways, as Terry wore it, the hat spoke of a scary, low-rent decadence) and a matching kelly green turtleneck, but also two gold tooth caps and a large imitation-gold chain…. One of the tooth caps even had a dollar sign carved into it.
Memoirist-reportage is a genre that encompasses the carefully researched and sensitively “meditated”- Finnegan’s Cold New World is exemplary here, as is Kathryn Watterson’s powerful, ground-breaking Women in Prison: Inside the Concrete Womb1 -as well as the more narrowly personal and regional, less professionally documented, like A Tribe Apart: A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence2 by Patricia Hersch and the sensational-cinematic 8 Ball Chicks: A Year in the Violent World of Girl Gangsters by Gini Sikes.3 Shading into intimate memoir is Eddy L. Harris’s Still Life in Harlem.4 And there is the idiosyncratic and provocative memoirist-biography in which the biographer’s very mission, motives, and self-doubt become an issue, as in Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, which questions the ethics of its own undertaking. Even a seemingly straightforward scholarly biography like Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol, by the historian Nell Irvin Painter, contains, in a concluding chapter, a startling account of the biographer’s personal, emotional experiences as a consequence of her research into her “mythic” subject. In these diverse titles, as in others of the memoirist-reportage genre, the “personal” does in fact enhance the “impersonal.” Processed through the imagination of a gifted writer, particularly one with a passionate conviction about the worth of his mission, even familiar material can be made newly rich and strange.
Cold New World is a sustained and unflinching look into the lives of young Americans who live in poverty of varying kinds: economic, social, intellectual, spiritual. Its strongest passages are written in a sharp-edged, obsessive, oneiric prose, suggesting the bright and brainless photorealism of such pop artists as Richard Estes; its lengthy California section, “The Unwanted,” suggests Beavis and Butt-head land as Samuel Beckett might have staged it, infinite variations on a single exhausting theme, deadpan “anomie.” Yet we can see why the author has been fascinated by these “other” lives that seem at times to mirror or mimic his own suburban adolescence, at an eerie, unsettling distance. “There is, just as fashionable cultural theory has it, no privileged place to stand,” Finnegan states. Part of the appeal of this gathering of life-portraits and firsthand revelations is that Finnegan can so adroitly place himself at the center of Cold New World as its brooding, conscience-stricken, and culturally privileged witness even as he allows his subjects the full range of their mercurial humanity. Despite its pessimism, Cold New World is brimming with a quickened, heated life and surprises of the sort adolescents invariably provide their astonished elders.
Finnegan’s thesis is that there is, in these ostensibly affluent times in the United States, a palpable “arc of decline”-a conviction stated in different ways by different speakers that “every generation gets worse.” A shadow-world exists populated by near-invisible, politically powerless (or indifferent) Americans who have no share in our national economy. “Weird” is a term used tirelessly by Finnegan’s young subjects, and probably “weird” is the only way to characterize a society in which, while the economy has been growing, the economic prospects for most Americans have been dimming; and in which “for young people and males and those without advanced degrees-for, that is, the large majority of working Americans-real hourly wages have fallen significantly over the past twenty-four years.” Unemployment is dramatically down, jobs are “plentiful”—but what dead-end, low-paying work it is. (Terry Jackson was making $30 a week in a seafood market in New Haven when, aged fifteen, he was offered the opportunity to make $1000 a week-as a “work boy” for a drug-dealing posse.) Only a few older relatives of Finnegan’s young people are politically conscious, or gripped by a sense of political mission like the intelligent, articulate, Mexican-born grapepickers Rose and Rafael Guerrero, now US citizens, who have been courageously involved in union activism in Washington State’s Yakima Valley; in black ghetto neighborhoods only the middle-aged and elderly now remember the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King and the Black Panthers and black pride. For young people, “history,” even family history, scarcely exists.
I once asked Mindy [seventeen-year-old white girl, Antelope Valley, California] if she had any interest in politics. She looked at me as if I were mad. Juan, Lanee, Terry-it had been the same, I realized, everywhere I had gone. Everything official was either “corny” or corrupt. What mattered were only the most immediate dramas: friends, family, love, money, drugs, liquor, music, parties, fights, the cops.
Even for the intelligent and well-spoken Terry Jackson, the pull of “Out There” is like gravity: “Out There” being the street and the flashy, fleeting thrill of the drug culture where one’s life expectancy is short but life itself is a high-adrenaline adventure; teenage drug dealers routinely hand over $70,000 in cash to Mercedes and Porsche dealers grateful for their money. In this world the objects of worship are designer clothes and shoes, gold jewelry and Rolexes, luxury cars. Even arrests and serious gun wounds are transformed by media attention; among the young, simply appearing on TV or in the paper is an achievement. (“In the newspaper,” a public defender tells Finnegan, “what they used to call the police blotter page, that’s my clients’ ‘Social Register.”‘) Unsurprisingly, Finnegan’s young subjects weren’t very impressed with him (“Indeed, they seemed to see me as something of a loser”) since he carried neither beeper nor gun and wasn’t wearing the right clothes. One of his interviewees, twenty-three-year-old Lanee Mitchell, laughs scornfully at Finnegan’s burgundy Rockports: “Ain’t you got some other shoes?” (And this in rural San Augustine County, East Texas.) If the illegal drug trade is the secret heart of the nation’s underground economy, as Finnegan believes, its rewards are the identical consumer products purchased by richer Americans.
Throughout Cold New World, in virtually every interior scene, a television is blaring in the background-cartoons, MTV, Seinfeld, Jerry Springer and David Letterman and advertisements-and more advertisements—“the nonstop sales pitch that is the white noise of [adolescents’] lives.” Finnegan is struck by the avidity with which disenfranchised teenagers from very different cultures align themselves with a universal pop culture and “liberal consumerism.” In the urban North, in the dirt-poor rural South, in the northwest Yakima Valley, in northern Los Angeles County, it’s the “ahistorical, rock-video weltanschauung” that defines young people and has become their collective religion; and, if they can afford cars and gas, aimless, brainless cruising of suburban strips with frequent stops at McDonald’s and Taco Bell. A perpetually stoned American Graffiti. Asked by Finnegan the classic cliché question, what do you want to be when you grow up, his subjects have immediate replies: Terry hopes to “go into acting,” Lanee wants to be a “modeler,” Juan, who’s in perpetual trouble with the law, wants to be a “cop or a prison guard,” and Mindy, with her tongue ring, pierced navel, and tattoo would like to be an “exotic dancer.” Significantly, none of these young people is interested in the religious and/or racial fundamentalism of older relatives. Most are high-school dropouts. They neither cruise the Internet nor read. One of Finnegan’s epigraphs is taken from Earl Shorris’s Latinos: A Biography of the People:
Now the clash is different, no longer between opposing sets of values, but between values and the violent vacuum. The substitute for culture presented to newcomers was invented at the conjunction of entertainment and advertising; it may still be called culture, but neither Rambo nor Madonna has the character required to get a troubled child through the night.
When Rafael Guerrero, the father of the disaffected eighteen-year-old Juan, exclaims to Finnegan, “Your words will outlive all of us. What you hear and see, what you write in your books, will be kept in the libraries of the world forever,” the reader is as startled as Finnegan, and as embarrassed. For what good are books on library shelves, even books as vividly authentic as Cold New World, if few people, not even their subjects, will read them?
In memoirist-reportage, the writer invariably returns to his old hometown or its sentimental equivalent. Adults who write of adolescence see themselves in their adolescent subjects. William Finnegan, a staff writer at The New Yorker (where excerpts from this book first appeared), the author of A Complicated War: The Harrowing of Mozambique, Dateline Soweto: Travels with Black South African Reporters, and Crossing the Line: A Year in the Land of Apartheid, has returned to his homeland in this romantic, sometimes self-indulgent work, discovering to his shame how insular and unconsciously racist his seemingly liberal California-suburban upbringing actually was. As a seasoned world traveler, however, he’s also shocked at the precocious decadence of northern LA County junior-high neo-Nazi skinheads and crystal methamphetamine addicts and feels he “hasn’t a clue” toward understanding these young people.
Memoirist-reportage is fueled by emotions unacknowledged in more formal, traditional journalism, history, biography. Yet surely in even the most impersonal of books, such emotions provide not only motive and energy for the arduous task of research and writing, but determine the selection of subject, the “evidence” bolstering an author’s intellectualized concept. Cold New World is never less than capably written, but it varies in tone and narrative interest because Finnegan writes out of love for (or infatuation with) certain of his subjects and out of mere journalistic duty regarding others. Of the book’s four sections, the one set in East Texas, “A Tight Fight with a Short Stick,” is by far the longest, bloated with characters and background, a not very inspired account of a fiercely contested election for county sheriff. Like Kathryn Watterson’s more varied Women in Prison, in which “snapshot” monologues of inmates provide considerable dramatic interest, Cold New World is most engaging when the author focuses intimately upon his subjects. Here is the sexy, streetwise son of the union organizers, the Guerreros:
Juan was several inches taller than his parents, and had a radically different affect. Where they were plainly from campesino backgrounds, with forthright, stolid manners, he had a lean, liquid grace and a distinctly ironic presence. They spoke only Spanish; his English had no Spanish accent. He had an open, intelligent, handsome face, a chipped front tooth, and five earrings. He wore his hair, which was bleached faintly henna-colored on top, in the sort of chopped-off bowl cut that I associated with undergraduates devoted to the Pre-Raphaelites.
I asked him about the farmworkers’ union.
Juan surprises his interviewer by professing neither knowledge of nor interest in the union, so vital to his parents’ lives-“It’s just not my scene.” When he picks grapes alongside his elders, he listens to his Walkman.
But it’s the California-Caucasians Mindy Taylor and her boyfriend Jaxon Stines who most captivate Finnegan. This long section, “The Unwanted,” might well have been more judiciously edited, though it’s teeming with incident, and eases us into the Day-Glo hard-rock world of Sikes’s 8 Ball Chicks and the most lurid of teen exploitation films. Writing of alcoholic, promiscuous, sexually abused, and uneducated “pure products of America,” by which he meant inbred Appalachian whites who’d begun to migrate to industrial cities in New Jersey in the 1930s, our great poet of the American vernacular, William Carlos Williams, could not have predicted the craziness of late-twentieth-century teen life as charted by Finnegan and other observers of the contemporary scene. Mindy and Jaxon are the children of a suburban wasteland north of Los Angeles that was largely rural desert only twenty years ago and has become a region, since the downsizing of the aerospace and defense industries, where “widespread white insecurity and downward mobility intersected with significant black and Latino upward mobility.” In idyllically named Antelope Valley, alcohol and drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, and Nazi skinhead activities aren’t uncommon among even junior-high students. Finnegan’s Mindy Taylor is a cover girl for California-suburban disaffected youth:
Mindy was pale, fashionably thin, moody, intense. Her manner oscillated with unnerving speed—from jaded worldliness to girlish enthusiasm, from precocious grace to gawkiness, from thuggish cynicism to naked vulnerability. She spoke in fluid bursts, as if she had to express each thought before she changed her mind….
In her mother’s day, Mindy’s [blond] looks might have made her a homecoming queen. But Mindy stopped going to school in tenth grade.
Mindy has been sexually promiscuous since eighth grade, has had an abortion, and has been addicted to, among other controlled substances, crystal meth (a dangerous form of speed that provokes violent rages). Mindy has been involved with Nazi skinheads and once had a swastika tattoo which she’s had removed by a series of painful and expensive laser procedures; in time, she becomes romantically involved with a neo-Nazi paratrooper at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, on trial for helping murder two black civilians. Mindy has a “soft spot…for Adolf Hitler” and her all-time favorite “leader” is Charles Manson-“My mom thinks I’m sick, but I think he’s cute.” Clearly, William Finnegan thinks that Mindy is both sick and cute.
Mindy’s boyfriend, Jaxon Stines, with whom Finnegan admits to most identifying, is a “pale, good-looking kid with deep-set eyes and a large, unfortunate, silver ring through his nose [that makes him look like a bull]…. His head [is] shaved except for a small, wispy patch on top.” Jaxon, whose mother is a political liberal with a degree in anthropology, is a violent skinhead Nazi with a police record whose vague aspiration is to be, as he confides in Finnegan, “middle class.”
Finnegan ponders why this is “such a strange and difficult” time to grow up in America, and his conclusion isn’t very original or imaginative: “For what it’s worth, I blame the government.” But there are numerous governments involved in Cold New World, state, county, and city as well as federal, and tangled family histories of aberrant behavior for which it seems naive to simply blame external “forces.” To what extent are Terry, Lanee, Juan, Mindy, and Jaxon merely hostages of history? If these drifting young people had turned out brilliantly, would Finnegan exclusively credit “the government”? Cold New World is a losers’ manual. It’s James T. Farrell’s punk epic Studs Lonigan (1929-1935) revisited, except the author has given us only poor Studs and his loser friends and hasn’t made any effort to seek out Danny O’Neill.
July 16, 1998
Northeastern University Press, 1996. This is a revised and expanded version of the 1973 edition. A cri de coeur in the guise of sociology, Watterson’s compendium of case studies, jail and prison interiors, assiduously compiled research, and passionately argued polemics (“I hope this book will help you think more deeply about our gardens of dross and the crops produced by them. If you can understand through the compilation of stories [here] that prisons have little to do with stopping crime or achieving justice, and that the women in prisons are not the criminals you thought they were, then something will have been gained”) should be a classic in its field. The appendix contains prison rules and regulations, a glossary of prison and prison-related terms, and a bibliography. ↩
Fawcett Columbine, 1998. Hersch’s book charts the author’s three-year “journey” into the private lives of teenagers in the author’s hometown, Reston, Virginia. It is an amiable, warmly respectful group portrait of attractive if troubled young young people that avoids sensationalism but contains few surprises. Hersch’s teenagers, like Finnegan’s, are not a representative cross-section of contemporary youth; they are comfortably suburban, relatively affluent, mostly Caucasian. The author’s thesis is that American adolescents constitute “a tribe apart”—that the rift between generations has become demonstrably more pronounced in recent years. ↩
Anchor, 1997. Dressed in the slick, sleazy look of a teen exploitation film, narrated with pulp-fiction intensity, this is a workmanlike amalgam of documentary information and first-person cinema verité focused upon girl-gang life in the ghettos of South Central Los Angeles, San Antonio, and Milwaukee. Sikes’s involvement with the sexually abused, drug-devastated ghetto girls leads her, like Finnegan and Watterson, to predictable yet profound conclusions: “The message our kids are sending is chillingly clear: society has failed to provide nurturing, attention, safety, discipline, and positive role models. We’ve left behind a generation of children to choose from a set of increasingly bleak options.” ↩
Henry Holt, 1996. This is an eloquently written account of the author’s uneasy sojourn in a world both familiar and foreign to him, framed by a witnessed episode of a black man’s violent beating of a black woman. “There in the shadows across the street was the beginning of the end of my life in Harlem . The beginning of the end too, I told myself, of my being black. After this, I had had enough, I wanted no more of it.” Despite its title, Still Life is filled with life and warmth; it’s a poet’s take on the classic sociological study of Negro streetcorner men, Tally’s Corner, by Elliot Liebow (1967). ↩