Cold New World: Growing up in a Harder Country

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New Yorker writer William Finnegan spent time with families in four communities across America and became an intimate observer of the lives he reveals in these beautifully rendered portraits: a fifteen-year-old drug dealer in blighted New Haven, Connecticut; a sleepy Texas town transformed by crack; Mexican American teenagers in Washington State, unable to relate to their immigrant parents and trying to find an identity in gangs; jobless young white supremacists in a downwardly mobile L.A. suburb. Important, powerful, and compassionate, Cold New World gives us an unforgettable look into a present that presages our future.

A New York Times Notable Book of the Year
A Los Angeles Times Best Nonfiction of 1998 selection
One of the Voice Literary Supplement's Twenty-five Favorite Books of 1998

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Growing Up in America

In Southern California, there is a town called the Antelope Valley, and as William Finnegan describes it, this modern suburb is an apocalyptic nightmare -- A Clockwork Orange set in Dante's Inferno. Helter Skelter and The Skinhead Bible are beloved of teenagers. A gang called the Nazi Low Riders battles an antiracist clique called the Sharps. Parents are absent -- many mothers are part of the "ghostly legions of tormented white women strung out on crystal meth." A constant, terrifying violence swirls around a naïve ninth-grader named Mindy Turner and her friend, an orphaned half-black rebel, Darius.

Mindy and Darius are two of the many teenagers Finnegan befriended as he spent "six years knocking around the United States." Having spent time in Soweto and Mozambique, Finnegan was still unprepared for the strife and mayhem he found in his own country, and his emotional response to the situations and people he encounters is palatable. He's a powerful and compelling narrator, and his reportage of those who are "not thriving" in Texas, Washington, California, and Connecticut is urgent and often heartbreaking.

As the subculture of teenage skinheads is brought to light, so is the subculture of inner-city drug dealers. In New Haven, an industrial town now lacking any legitimate industry, Finnegan hangs out with Terry Jackson, a 16-year-old energetic Nintendo champion. Like Mindy and Darius, Terry is growing up in a world of pervasive poverty and violence, and the dilemma he faces is as dramatic and brutal. He flourishes as a "work boy" in the crack-cocaine trade, tours the nearby but utterly distant campus of Yale, seeks a $6-an-hour job as a cook in a convalescent home, and faces a bureaucratic farce as he tries to enter the Job Corps.

The drug trade is also an alluring and destructive force in the lives of those in San Augustine, a sleepy town in the southern Texas pinewoods. Everyone from successful, law-abiding entrepreneurs to a larger-than-life Boss Hog-style sheriff gets caught up in a highly publicized sting operation conducted as part of the government's "war on drugs." Finnegan evocatively shows how the politically motivated raid, rather than the minor drug sales, creates a "new generation of ghosts, sowing a new crop of sorrow." The new shape of the American dream is also evident in Yakima Valley, Washington. There Finnegan meets the son of hardworking Mexican immigrants, a young boy who veers from a love for Pearl Jam and snowboarding to devoted viewings of "Natural Born Killers" and stints in juvenile detention.

Why are drugs so rampant in America? Why is violence so appealing to teenagers? Finnegan's portraits provide constant insights into our "social problems," but this book should not be placed on the shelf next to those by William Bennett or Dr. Laura -- it does not provide a simple, moralistic solution. Instead, Cold New World has been compared to James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Like Steinbeck or Agee, Finnegan has written a classic exposé of a previously hidden reality. I can't think of another contemporary book that has so convincingly revealed this side of America. The lives of the working-class have been ignored by the glossy New York media, turned into sight gags on "Jerry Springer," and blathered about in the affirmative action/youth violence commentary of pundits. Here, thankfully, we are given a more complex and crucial view. Let's hope George W. Bush and Al Gore read about Mindy and Darius before they pontificate on the future of America.

—Margot Towne

From the Publisher
"A gripping narrative . . . Finnegan's real achievement is to attach identities to the steady stream of faceless statistics that tell us America's social problems are more serious than we want to believe."—The Washington Post

"For years, Bill Finnegan, a masterful reporter, has immersed himself in the world of the young and the lost. The reports he brings from four corners of the country, four desperate corners, will tell you more about the drug problem and more about what ails America than any other book I know of. Cold New World is chilling and dark, but it also vibrates with life."—David Remnick

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375753824
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/28/1999
  • Series: Modern Library Paperbacks Series
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 1,029,573
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

William Finnegan has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1987. He is 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, which was named one of the ten best nonfiction books of 1986 by The New York Times Book Review. He was a National Magazine Award finalist in both 1990 and 1995. He lives in New York City with his wife.

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Reading Group Guide

This discussion guide will assist readers in exploring Cold New World. Hopefully, it will help create a bond not only between the book and the reader, but also between the members of the group. In your support of this book, please feel free to copy and distribute this guide to best facilitate the program. Thank you.

1. Cold New World is about kids, families, and communities "caught in social and economic downdrafts." The book cites evidence that the great American middle class has been shrinking since the 1970s, and offers various examples of a generation-long decline in economic opportunity for nonaffluent young people. (See, for instance, the lawyer Nancy Kelso's speech on p. 323.) Meanwhile, many of our politicians and pundits extol the current health of the American economy. So, is Finnegan simply pointing out the empty fraction of a mostly full glass? What factors do you think account for these sharply different descriptions of the state of the American Dream?

2. The Sunday Times of London called Cold New World "a landmark account of teenage alienation in America." After reading the book, do you feel any closer to understanding the more bizarre and frightening attitudes and behavior sometimes manifested by young Americans?

3. What does Finnegan mean when, after taking readers on his national tour of sometimes-alarming youth subcultures, he writes, "They connect private and public life" (p. 349)?

4. Terry Jackson's decision to become a drug dealer is first described in terms of a powerful economic opportunity that suddenly presents itself to a child of grinding poverty (p. 9-16). Terry himself describes the excitement of the dealer's life, including the girls who come with it. The author, meanwhile, analyzes the consumerist values that dominate the young dealer's world (p. 58-59). Then Virginia Henry, an older anti-drug activist, offers her very different view of these matters (p. 59-60). Whose description of the illegal drug trade—its morality, its allure—seems most persuasive?

5. The "Deep East Texas" section of Cold New World is, in part, about a disappearing way of life, represented here by Nathan Tindall. The sheriff's election becomes a kind of referendum on this way of life. Who did you find yourself rooting for as San Augustine County went to the polls? Why?

6. Laverne Clark has a sharp, specific sense of local history and black dispossession in the rural South (p. 112). Her daughter Lanee Mitchell has a radically different view of the past and its significance (p. 125-131). What factors account for this philosophical difference? Finnegan clashes with both women at points. Whose arguments did you find stronger when the topic was unwed motherhood (p. 132-136) or Anita Hill (p. 184)? And where did your sympathies lie when Finnegan refused to corroborate Lanee's story about beating her son (p. 194)?

7. Why do you think the commanders of Operation White Tornado decided to pounce when they did (p. 156-157)?

8. In the Yakima Valley, Rafael and Rosa Guerrero pursue the immigrants' dream of una vida mejor with great determination. Why does Juan not share his parents' faith in the farmworkers' union as a vehicle for their hopes? And what does it mean when Finnegan writes, "Juan's anomie was not Third World but thoroughly American" (p. 246)?

9. Is Don Vlieger's lecture on youth gangs (p. 220-224) persuasive? Does Juan's experience with gangs—or Mary Ann Ramirez's experience (p. 240-243; p. 259-261)—tend to confirm or contradict Vlieger's analysis?

10. Juan and Mary Ann break up after he feels he has to make a choice between her and his (male) friends. When they get back together in Texas, Juan seems to appreciate his own good fortune. But then their story ends on an ominous note. What do you think happened next? And what model of the family and of communal responsibility is Juan substituting for his parents' traditional campesino sense of village solidarity?

11. The Los Angeles suburbs of the Antelope Valley have suffered a long string of hate crimes. Finnegan observes (p. 273) that the downward social and economic mobility of many of the valley's white residents, combined with upward mobility among the area's blacks and Latinos, has provided the spark, the charged atmosphere, for many of these crimes—some white youths, in particular, cannot abide this reversal of standard race-caste roles. Do you find this a persuasive explanation of the strange popularity of white supremacism among kids in the Antelope Valley? What other forces might lead young people to join a gang such as the Nazi Low Riders?

12. Mindy Turner has been through an extraordinary number of "phases" by the time she turns fourteen—hippie, hesher, would-be Jew, Mormon convert, neo-Nazi. What do you think drives her? And why does she continue to be attracted—even after many bad experiences—to racist, violent men?

13. The damage that crystal methamphetamine does to both individuals and communities becomes obvious in "The Unwanted" section of Cold New World. Is the drug itself the problem? Or do you see it as primarily a symptom of social malaise? Is criminalization the best policy response? Or would treating crystal meth (and other dangerous drugs) as a public-health problem ultimately yield better results?

14. Do you agree with the district attorney's decision not to prosecute Darius Houston for killing Jeff Malone (p. 334)?

15. Are you persuaded by Finnegan's arguments against the existence of a "culture of poverty" (p. xxi, 135, 361, 378-379)? Does Dr. James Comer's description (pp. 44-45) of the early realization among poor children that they are not being prepared to compete in the mainstream economy ring true? What social policies might help stem the loss of so many young Americans to drugs, prison, and poverty?

16. Finnegan clearly got quite close to many of the people he writes about in Cold New World. Do you think that, on the whole, this improved his understanding or undermined his objectivity?

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