Down on American Dream

By Scully, Sean | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 21, 1998 | Go to article overview

Down on American Dream


Scully, Sean, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Can it be that humans are pessimists by nature? How else to explain why some people seem fixated on the notion that yesterday was good, today is bad and tomorrow will be worse yet.

William Finnegan, the New Yorker magazine writer, wallows in this bleak notion in his "Cold New World." Beginning with an intriguing premise, he visits a neighborhood - usually one in economic, ethnic or cultural flux - and submerges himself for a time in the local culture. His particular focus is "hard-pressed people whom I liked enough to spend months with."

"American real life is rowdier, more disturbing, more charming, than anything dreamt of in your or my philosophy," he writes in an introduction. The four resulting stories are extensions of essays that appeared in New Yorker over the course of this decade. The writer trails a diverse series of kids:

Terry, a teenage drug dealer growing up in the gutted inner-city of New Haven, Conn., as crack cocaine swept the East Coast in the late 1980s; Lanee, a young mother in a rural East Texas town living with the aftermath of a massive federal drug raid; Juan, a youth in Washington's Yakima Valley trying to shed his Mexican peasant roots and find an identity in a sterile American suburb; Mindy, a white teenager torn between rival gangs of neo-Nazis and non-racist skinheads in a depressed, and depressing, suburb of Los Angeles.

The stories have compelling and insightful moments. Mr. Finnegan's tale of the rise and fall of the longtime sheriff of Lanee's native San Augustine County, for example, is a fascinating illustration of the almost mystical power of rural southern sheriffs.

Unfortunately, Mr. Finnegan is not content to be a teller of interesting tales. He tries to stretch his unrelated stories into a sweeping work of sociology and stumbles badly.

Mr. Finnegan concludes that his four stories illustrate a pervasive "downward mobility" in American society, as the United States "deindustrializes" and the children of the Baby Boom face the prospect of falling into poverty. Class lines, Mr. Finnegan says, are hardening and America is becoming a frightening and "hard" place in which to grow up. "Now, in the postindustrial world, this two-hundred year rise [in the standard of living] appears to have slowed greatly, if not stopped altogether," he writes. "Most workers are losing ground."

Never mind, of course, that the U.S. economy is booming, home sales - even among the post-Baby Boom youth - are at levels not seen since the 1960s, and that industry accounts for as much of the U.S. gross domestic product as it did in the 1950s. …

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