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Free fall

<i> Osha Gray Davidson is the author of, most recently, "The Enchanted Braid: Coming to Terms With Nature on the Coral Reef" (John Wiley & Sons)</i>

There’s a wonderful scene in the movie “Primary Colors” in which Clinton clone Jack Stanton is speaking to a crowd of downsized factory workers in New Hampshire. To his handlers’ horror, the presidential aspirant veers perilously toward the truth.

“I can’t bring your factory back,” rasps Stanton in that now-familiar, empathy-clotted voice. Quick cut to the sea of stunned faces. Silence. They’re used to politicians bearing promises of prosperity, tax cuts, free lunch--whatever it takes to win the first-in-the-nation primary. Back to Stanton-Clinton. The old days are gone, he says. To succeed in the new century, “you’re going to have to exercise a new set of muscles: the ones between your ears.” And if he becomes president, he promises (did you doubt a promise of some sort was waiting in the wings?) to help them develop those muscles, to make education a lifelong reality. And when that happens, he declares, they will march arm in arm into the brave new high-tech, free-trade world of peace and prosperity.

Skeptical frowns become blazing smiles. These normally stolid Yankees leap to their feet, waving their fists in the air and cheering until they’re red, white and blue in the face. What began as a funereal gathering in the shell of a factory has turned into, of all things, a revival meeting. All that’s lacking is a machinist rolling around on the floor and speaking in tongues.

Reading William Finnegan’s harrowing “Cold New World,” which is about the generation coming of age today in the waning years of the second millennium, it is tempting to conclude that it was Jack Stanton-Bill Clinton who was speaking in tongues.

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Lifelong education? How about just completing a high school diploma? A kid in Deep East Texas, where the only jobs around are in the low-skill, low-wage, dead-end poultry factory, tells a welfare worker: “Why should I finish school? I can go gut chickens now, or I can wait two years, and get a diploma, and then go gut chickens.” And, of course, she’s right.

As Finnegan points out, the median income of most Americans has been steadily eroding for a generation. Government figures indicate that unemployment is relatively low (although that’s subject to debate). But merely having a job is no longer the ticket to middle-class security, not with a third of the nation’s workers earning wages insufficient to lift a family out of poverty. The result, says Finnegan, is that "[a] new American class structure is being born--one that is harsher, in many ways, than the one it is replacing.”

Many excellent books have documented the reasons for this decline, beginning with Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison’s 1982 “The Deindustrialization of America.” Finnegan’s contribution is, blessedly, not more analysis but stories focusing on children: unromanticized and finely wrought tales set on this cold new American landscape, in which parents are either too busy working multiple jobs to adequately supervise their children or unemployed and strung out on drugs. The results, he writes, are “hometown versions of ‘Lord of the Flies.’ ”

Finnegan, a staff writer for The New Yorker, tells four separate stories focusing on teenagers in New Haven, Conn.; San Augustine, Texas; the Yakima Valley in Washington; and the Antelope Valley in California. Unlike most journalists who drop in for a quick interview and fly back out again, Finnegan spent many weeks with families in each community over a period of several years, enough time to distinguish between the kind of short-term problems that can beset anyone and the longer-term systemic poverty and social disintegration that can pound an entire generation into a groove of despair.

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The stories he tells are revealing and deeply affecting. In the hands of a lesser author, the accounts might have become repetitious, but with Finnegan’s deft touch, each mournful tale deepens our understanding of the torments caused by what economists refer to, antiseptically, as “restructuring.” Only once, in the section set in Texas, does Finnegan miss his mark. The author allows himself to get sidetracked chronicling Operation White Tornado, a massive anti-drug strike that involved more than 200 law enforcement officials from about a dozen agencies--and netted just 5 ounces of cocaine. It is, admittedly, a fascinating bit of reporting, exposing the political nature of the war on drugs, but it’s inclusion in this book seems a bit strained.

The most fully developed and satisfying story is the book’s opening one, no doubt because it began as a New Yorker piece and served as the entire book’s inspiration. Finnegan follows the life and times of Terry Jackson, a young black kid in New Haven with a work ethic that makes a Horatio Alger hero seem like a slacker. At 11, he hawked newspapers on street corners. At 12, he cleared tables for $40 a week. Before long he was working several jobs at once. And then, in the late 1980s, along came cocaine. Buyers were mostly yuppies from the suburbs, streaming into Terry’s inner-city neighborhood to score and bringing with them a sudden infusion of cash. Drug dealers weren’t the only beneficiaries; what economists call the “multiplier effect” operates in both illicit and official economies. As Finnegan makes clear, “car dealers, owners of jewelry stores and sportswear stores, lawyers, bankers and bail bondsmen,” not to mention corrupt cops, all gleefully claimed their portion of the loot.

When the upright owner of a New Haven sporting goods store put up a sign proclaiming “If You Deal Drugs, We Don’t Want Your Business,” a supplier from a major sportswear firm chided his naivete. “Look, you’re an inner-city store,” the man lectured. “You gotta hook up with drug dealers, really cater to them.”

At 15, Terry joined the trade, starting as a “work boy” selling small capsules of cocaine at $10 a pop in a second-floor hallway of a housing project. He applied the same work ethic to the drug trade as he had to other ventures, working 12-hour shifts six days a week.

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“Quick fast in a hurry, I was makin’ crazy dollars,” he says. “I was livin’ large.” Terry made $1,000 a week--certainly a lot of money for a 15-year-old dropout. On the other hand, given the long hours, he was only earning $14 an hour, with no benefits and some rather large risks: jail, police beatings and death at the hands of rival dealers.

Terry’s family life, when Finnegan enters the picture, is chaotic. His parents, who were never truly together, are now completely estranged. His father has a new family and can’t, or won’t, intervene as Terry’s involvement in the drug trade deepens. His mother spent several years lost in a haze of freebasing while Terry was raised by his maternal grandmother, an old-fashioned disciplinarian who tries to keep her grandchildren on the right path--a tall order when dealing drugs is the only game in town. When Terry is inevitably arrested, it’s for a crime he didn’t commit. But determining guilt and innocence are trivial pursuits to the overburdened legal system. The public defender who has barely met her client is ready to let Terry go to jail for three years for a crime he didn’t commit when Finnegan, unable to maintain the proper “journalistic distance,” intercedes. A private lawyer takes the case and almost immediately all charges are dropped.

After washing dishes at a convalescent home for a short time, Terry slides back into the more lucrative but deadly drug trade. Violence permeates this section (as it does much of the book), with shootings between rival gangs and among members of the same gang, over drugs or perceived slights or girlfriends or revenge for earlier shootings. Even while visiting the local high school, Finnegan witnesses a drive-by shootout in the street. Terry himself is no Gandhi, but Finnegan, to his credit, neither glosses over his subject’s violence nor simply condemns it. Instead, he shows us why violence is the inevitable result of an atomized society where “livin’ large” is the national obsession, while the legal means to that end are denied to a growing number of its citizens, and where “high-tech” means semi-automatic 9-mm pistols. (In one poignant scene, Finnegan takes Terry to the Yale library and shows him how to do a computer search for a book. Terry could probably teach an NRA gun instructor a thing or two about the technical differences between firearms, but this was the first time he had ever touched a keyboard.)

When Terry is arrested again, he draws a two-year term at the state prison. After visiting him there, Finnegan has “a heretical thought"--that Terry is better off in jail, at least for a while. It provides him with a calmer and safer environment than the streets of New Haven, as well as a chance to study and earn his General Equivalence Degree. Finnegan never asks the question outright, yet it hangs in the air: What does it say about a society in which prison has become the best option for a basically decent youth?

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After Terry is released (far ahead of time due to overcrowding), he bounces between legitimate and illicit work and moves to Detroit where, when Finnegan last spoke with him, he had worked his way up to managing a kitchen in a convalescent home. We’re left wondering how long Terry will last this time, working for honest-poverty wages before he succumbs to the lure of big bucks in the street.

The other stories in the book are nuanced variations on the bleak themes set out in Terry’s story. Finnegan shows us that, while the specifics may vary from place to place, the future looks no better for young blacks in rural Texas, Latino teenagers in Washington state or skinheads in an imploding Los Angeles suburb.

The title “Cold New World” is as much a reference to Huxley’s dystopic novel “Brave New World” as it is to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” which is where the phrase originated. But to those of us who came of age in another troubled time, the 1960s, the words also evoke a more hopeful literary allusion. They recall Tennyson’s adjuration in “Ulysses,” used by Robert Kennedy in his final campaign: “Come, my friends, / ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”

But it is the lesser-known concluding lines of Tennyson’s poem, with their sense of loss and hint of regeneration, that resonate even more powerfully, especially after reading Finnegan’s dark and splendid book:

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Though much is taken, much abides; and though

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

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Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

At the end of the book, Finnegan wonders if we have the will to make a better world. Or will we, instead, continue slouching toward the new millennium, comfortable in our cynicism and indifferent to the fate of our children?


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