Exiled from Main Street

William Finnegan's Cold New World maps the topography of dispossession

"There is... a language of the poor, a psychology of the poor, a world view of the poor." So wrote Michael Harrington in the first chapter of 1962's The Other America, the broadside that often receives credit for launching what was hopefully termed the war on poverty. That war, you will remember, entailed a slate of social programs which fleetingly illuminated the conscience of the nation's leaders--an engagement more effective than our later campaigns against Southeast Asians and recreational pharmaceuticals, though today less popular. Harrington continues, "The poor can be described statistically; they can be analyzed as a group. But they need a novelist as well as a sociologist if we are to see them. They need an American Dickens to record the smell and texture and quality of their lives. I am not that novelist," he concludes.

William Finnegan is that novelist, and his book Cold New World (Random House) describes not only the newest generations of Harrington's dispossessed, but those whose exile from the middle class is recent. Finnegan conveys the drama of this existence through an accumulation of misspent evenings, wayward friends, professional disappointments, and run-ins with the law. And as with compelling fiction, he shifts from domestic scenes to the local politics that govern their form, be that a small-town sheriff's race, the unionizing drive among farm workers, the starvation diet afforded higher education, or the public vigil following an urban murder spree. Though Finnegan intends to debunk the oft-repeated claim that a rising tide lifts all ships--a slogan most popular among those whose yacht is proceeding at a brisk clip--he will do it by describing with indisputable authority the view from the garbage barge bobbing listlessly over a wrecking reef.

In fact, Finnegan is not a novelist, but a journalist. He first published versions of the four episodes that make up Cold New World in The New Yorker, where he is a staff writer. Apparently that periodical, which I like to think of as the weekly magazine section to the Wall Street Journal's imaginary Sunday edition, can occasionally tire of printing valentines to billionaire media barons. In this commendable case, The New Yorker allowed Finnegan seven-odd years to report his stories in New Haven, Connecticut, Deep East Texas, the Yakima Valley in Washington, and the Antelope Valley outside L.A. (Compare this odd assignment to Henry Luce's fortuitous decision to send James Agee and Walker Evans to cover tenant cotton farming for Fortune, a collaboration that ultimately produced Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.)

"Just part of the furniture": William Finnegan's intimate reporting required him to become a semipermanent houseguest among his subjects
"Just part of the furniture": William Finnegan's intimate reporting required him to become a semipermanent houseguest among his subjects

The stories Finnegan writes, each roughly 100 pages, reflect the complicated understandings such long-term reporting provided. We first meet "Terry Jackson," a bright and affectionate black New Haven teen whose combination of a strong work ethic and poor education leads him to the drug trade. Next the story turns to Lanee Mitchell, a black 23-year-old preacher's daughter working as a chicken plucker at a Tyson plant. A 200-agent drug raid in her sleepy hometown of San Augustine, Texas, has netted five ounces of cocaine and 54 arrests; 50 of those people are black. Third are the meanderings of Juan Guererro, the child of Mexican-born farm-labor unionists in the Yakima Valley of the Pacific Northwest. His skills as a street fighter and ambiguity toward his racial identity make him a cipher to the police and a threat to organized gangs; his apathy renders him a rotten lover and no friend to himself. Cold New World ends with Mindy Turner in the middle-class suburbs of the Antelope Valley, where 45 percent of high-school students don't graduate with their classes, and authorities identify more than 200 youth gangs. Among these are the Nazi Low Riders and a competing crew of anti-racist skinheads, both of which offer a diversion for the coquettish white teen who keeps posters of John Lennon in her bedroom while speaking admiringly of Charles Manson.

Finnegan's writing is flawless throughout Cold New World, skillfully paced and perceptively observed. (Contrary to my opening claim, though, his descriptive prose eschews metaphor, the tool of the novelist's trade, striving instead for a seeming transparency.) Yet it is the work that the author has scribbled into what must be hundreds of reporter's notebooks that has facilitated his success. For among Finnegan's greatest achievements must be his ability to insinuate himself into the company of finicky adolescents. Bouncing from region to region and family to family, he proves an indefatigable houseguest. In one scene, he will drive Terry to call upon his girlfriend, Lakeeda, during a pregnancy scare. In another, Finnegan will accompany Juan and his sassy girlfriend Mary Ann on a snowboarding expedition.

In an interview the day of his recent reading in St. Paul, Finnegan discusses the long acclimation periods that he invested in each project through an anecdote about the SHARPs--Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice. "I remember their headquarters at the time was the bedroom of these two brothers--this horrible teenage den with scribbled graffiti on the walls," Finnegan recalls bemusedly. "And that was the hangout for a while, so I was often there. And I remember thinking I'd really achieved my fly-on-the-wall status one day when I was in there lying on the bed watching a Mike Tyson video for the hundredth time. These girls came to the front door in the afternoon, and one of the boys answered. And the girls were saying, 'Who's here? What's happening?' And the boys said, 'Nothing, nobody--just Bill.' I was just part of the furniture, which was what I wanted."

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