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: 713,379
  • 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.

From the Hardcover edition.

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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.

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