Exiled from Main Street

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

Yet Finnegan, who is in his mid-40s, could hardly be compared with the young Cameron Crowe, who successfully infiltrated Ridgemont High by enrolling as a student. Instead, Finnegan wins his place by exercising a strenuous refusal to pass judgement--either in the living room of his hosts or later on the page. "It's partly expedient," Finnegan explains, "because it helps you gain their trust." Yet Finnegan's consideration seems more a matter of temperament, a theory confirmed by Mary Ann. "She said, 'It's great the way you don't judge us,'" Finnegan recalls.

Occasionally, the reader wishes he would intercede. In one extraordinary scene, Finnegan, lying sick in Lanee's bedroom, hears her thrashing her 6-year-old son, Johnathan, for having stood behind a door that hit him when she opened it. Later that day, Lanee calls upon the author as an "earwitness" to the whipping when recounting the event for her family (and in a quiet act of defiance, he denies having heard anything). But when the time comes to sum up the incident, Finnegan generously concludes that Lanee "was just trying to show her family and friends that she was a good mother, capable of doing what had to be done."

But journalists should not be mistaken for officers on the Starship Enterprise, proscribed from interfering in the lives of alien cultures. Finnegan's reticence to step in has less to do with journalistic ethics--a phrase that by now must constitute a bona fide oxymoron--than with his desire to respect the doings of honorable (and even dishonorable) people. In a similar way, Finnegan concedes the fallibility of his own mostly liberal and pragmatic credo. Lanee's mother, Laverne Clark, chides the author for "naïveté" in contradicting her pessimistic interpretation of San Augustine's racial history. And he owns up to the charge: Watching the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings with a wisecracking Clark, he later concedes, "I was out of my league."

"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

It is the kids, though, who school Finnegan on the wider failings of the society that is shaping them (an interesting turn on Finnegan's excellent first book, Crossing the Line: A Year in the Life of Apartheid, which recounted his teaching stint in a coloured school outside Capetown). Strangely, the most powerful and succinct evaluation might come from Chris Runge, a 19-year-old, self-described "political Nazi," whose mother is a "serious tweaker"--a metamphetamine user--and whose grandfather was an executive with Xerox. "We're going down," he tells Finnegan, and the words have the sneaky force of a generational manifesto.

The shortcomings of American schools, the exportation of industrial jobs, the burgeoning of a low-wage economy, the unequal application of criminal justice--Finnegan recites this familiar litany of national ills in "Midnight at the Casino," the epilogue that closes Cold New World. His analysis is astute nonetheless (and extensively footnoted in the back of the book) and he suggests that Terry, Lanee, Juan, and Mindy have made him reassess the severity of his diagnosis. "I think the kids I've written about all understood, one way or another, this ill-starred trend--and understood it, on the whole, better than I did," Finnegan writes.

In conversation, the author elaborates on this pervasive cynicism--or perhaps the word for it is realism. Finnegan explains, "My stance on the welcomingness of the great American middle class had been really muted by the time I was done with this--my unexamined notion that membership was sort of automatic if you were born into it, and that it wasn't that hard to get in. You pay attention in school and plug on into college. Reporting this book was a real comeuppance."

In the end, what is missing from Cold New World are the earnest exhortations to remedy the situation, the call to conscience and public action. As Finnegan's work has amply illustrated, he will brook no lazy sentiment. And instead he leaves the reader with an image of Angelica Jackson, Terry's mother, "having heard that Terry was in trouble, perhaps even involved in a shoot-out, missing the last bus into New Haven and running after it, mile after mile, but never quite catching it--and then always telling the story of her failure with an air of self-congratulation."

Whether the reader likes it or not, with Finnegan's book in hand we have now received the call; we're implicated in the chase.

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