Exiled from Main Street

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

"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.)

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."  

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."

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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