TEENAGE WASTELAND: Suburbia's Dead End Kids by Donna Gaines (Pantheon: $23; 235 pp.). c,8.5,pl The tripling in teen suicides from 1950 to 1980 has spawned no dearth of books on "our troubled youth," but an unsettling number have been written by authors bearing a pained and bemused expression not unlike mom's after she sees her son's baseball fly through the living-room window.
Not so "Teenage Wasteland." Although a sociologist and social worker in her mid-30s, Donna Gaines hasn't severed all of her ties with her adolescence of school failures, drug overdoses and jail stays: She still dresses in full black-leather regalia and hangs out with teens at heavy-metal concerts and drag-racing shows. Gaines lets these details "slip" in a transparent attempt to elicit our trust in a writing style that often speaks for teens rather than quoting them as would a faithful oral historian. But she later wins our trust more respectably with unpretentious analysis (when asked why kids do it, she responds, "because they had bad lives") and a host of fresh insights.
Where most authorities speculate, for instance, that teens commit suicide because they feel disconnected from society, Gaines believes they are usually too connected: too constrained by unmeaningful jobs, too regulated and too burdened by the tacit expectation that they will succeed where their parents failed.