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From Barnes & NobleGrowing 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.