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Growing Up Kept Down

Growing Up in a Harder Country
By William Finnegan
Random House

The most remarkable of William Finnegan's many literary gifts is his compassion. Not the fact of it, which we have a right to expect from any personal reporting about the oppressed, but its coolness, its clarity, its ductile strength. Compassion is a solvent, and in its bleeding-heart variants quickly turns writing soggy. That's why Alex Kotlowitz's gripping There Are No Children Here seems soft at times, its two Chicago project kids too well-meaning to be fully believed. Paragons can't be paradigms, and although Kotlowitz refrains from airbrushing the brothers he's all but adopted, they exemplify nothing. Cold New World's protagonists are different. In their late teens or early twenties, they're already succumbing to a class war that hasn't abated since Reagan turned it up, and because the author's suspended judgment never flirts with impassivity or outlaw romanticism, they seem ordinary in their failings. As a result, their talents, their aspirations, and their struggles toward selfhood also seem ordinary, in the best way--organic attributes of a shared American humanity.

Finnegan's book is powered emotionally by the impact of "downward mobility" and "the frightening growth in the number of low-wage jobs" on young people, especially young people of color, in a supposedly booming economy that favors not just whites but the elderly. Despite his tendency to demonize "the American religion of liberal consumerism," Finnegan's historical-intellectual grasp exceeds that of Kotlowitz or Gini Sikes, whose frightening report on female gang-bangers, 8 Ball Chicks, flanks Cold New World's hard side the way There Are No Children Here does its soft. And for the most part he submerges his ideas in patient, perfectly paced reporting that first surfaced as four long New Yorker pieces dating back to 1990--not one, remarkably, situated in a large city, although the metropolis's cultural lure and capital resources inflect them all.

Starting the sequence is "Terry Jackson," a decent, unmoored African American teenager who bounces in and out of the New Haven dope trade. From there the story passes to rural East Texas, where black 23-year-old chicken plucker Lanee Mitchell provides the youth angle, although the focus is a white populist sheriff ruined by his disinclination to come down on the hard-working black capitalists who go into drugs when Houston's construction industry collapses. Section three follows Juan Guerrero, the slacker son of two Mexican-born United Farm Workers activists in Washington's Yakima Valley, past the moment when his genius for martial arts gets him run out of town. Finally Finnegan goes home to Southern California, where "the sense of extreme freedom" he recalls from his surfer youth proves "anomalous--an unearned blessing." Before the end of his time in Palmdale, a vast exurb two hours north of L.A., the only African American among the antiracist skins he's been hanging with has killed a racist bonehead, and Finnegan's white subject, the compulsively flirtatious Mindy Turner, has extended her quest for a father into a correspondence with ex-GI James Burmeister, currently serving consecutive life sentences for the random slayings of two black civilians.

Finnegan acknowledges the distortion built into all high-access reporting--he has to like his subjects enough to spend months with them, and vice versa. So it's no surprise that all are articulate and insightful about themselves no matter how ignorant they are about the world, and also no surprise that toward the edges of their circles Finnegan encounters much uglier and stupider individuals. He roots shamelessly for these kids who have become his friends--and in several cases offers them substantial material support once his New Yorker-imposed presumption of journalistic "objectivity" is mooted by publication, even financing Juan's escape to San Francisco and Texas. But just because he's supportive doesn't mean he lets them off the hook. Terry makes promises he can't keep and lands in jail. Juan also does time he could have avoided, and is too shallow or callow to return the love of a woman he probably doesn't deserve. Mindy's vagrant impulses are more reliable than her utterly muddled principles. Even lovely Lanee, who's old enough to have put adolescent self-absorption behind her, smacks her young son around for no reason Finnegan or the reader can credit.

The calm with which Finnegan relates these missteps never registers as acceptance. He respects his subjects too much to deny their responsibility, and himself too much to fall into cultural relativism. But his compassion compels him to emphasize how circumstances constrain the poor. Mindy lost her dad in an industrial accident. Juan is a basically honorable guy whose social disaffections would be marks of hip in a scion of the upper-middle class with more time to get himself together. Just as gangsta rappers rationalize, Terry becomes a crack-hawking "work boy" because he wants to make something of himself and help the people he loves--including his mother, whose ability to enjoy drugs engages Finnegan's bemused sympathy, and his grandmother, whose refusal to tolerate them excites his undisguised admiration. And it's heartening Lanee can raise a child at all in a local economy that draconian law enforcement has relentlessly restacked against everybody outside the old white elite.

Finnegan, whose three excellent earlier books are set in Africa, correctly believes he's telling a crucial American story here, and in a journalistic world that provides juicy bits for readers assumed to be as jaded as editors are, The New Yorker deserves credit for underwriting it. If it seems suspect that such a smug venue should launch a substantial attack on the bland lies of Clintonian pseudo-prosperity, thank literature that it isn't, because literature is why it happened. Finnegan writes like a dream. His prose is unfailingly lucid, graceful, and specific, his characterization effortless, and the pull of his narrative pure seduction--he knows just when to move from summary to incident or analysis and back again, and if he's a bulldog when he smells a turning point, he's a pussycat tracing the stray ends of a silly yarn. In this he seems to keep getting better. Not even Crossing the Line, which recounts a year spent teaching at an apartheid high school in "coloured" Cape Town, moves with such clarity at such a clip.

Beneath this generous story subsists a rather purse-lipped analysis--Finnegan's consumerism shibboleth, his skimpily explored assertion that boomers make lousy parents, his distaste for New Jack City and Smashing Pumpkins. But the tale itself is so rich and open-ended that it leaves each of us free to speculate. Me, I was struck that for all his well-conceived determination to write about class, Finnegan couldn't escape race, even (especially) in "white" Palmdale. I understood more vividly than ever that the state's "war on drugs" is a vile travesty, another way to render the poor redundant. And however tedious pro forma anticonsumerism may be, I could see how high material expectations messed up Finnegan's kids, who couldn't match the will and spirit palpable in his A Complicated War--about Mozambique, the most impoverished nation on the planet. But I also noted that these kids were far braver and more resourceful than the smug assume. And I was grateful that Finnegan had provided the means for any reader to enter deep into their worlds--so irreducibly individual in one way, so historically freighted in another.

Village Voice, May 12, 1998