For those us who have never heard of William Finnegan, the blurb to Cold New World tells us he ‘is regarded as the premier reporter in America‘. The claim is fairly magnificent, especially as Bob Woodward or Seymour Hersh or half a dozen other big-name reporters spring to mind. But Cold New World is, indeed, a piece of ambitiously extended reportage, trying to answer the most difficult question about the modern United States: What price are Americans willing to pay for social peace?
Finnegan correctly focuses on the American paradox. The country is in an unprecedented condition. ‘While the national economy has been growing, the economic prospects of most Americans have been dimming,’ he asserts. ‘For young people and males and those without advanced degrees – for, that is, the large majority of working Americans – real wages have fallen significantly over the past twenty-four years.’
Despite everything you read in the financial press about the booming American stock market, low inflation and full employment, this is the main reason why so many Americans are angry with their society and their government at the very peak of American power. Finnegan writes of a ‘frightening growth in the number of low-wage jobs’, which leaves about a third of the country’s workers earning too little to lift their families out of poverty. His book is about those who have failed, people for whom the American Dream has gone sour. The root of American optimism is the belief that each generation will do better than its parents’. Finnegan focuses on those who are doing worse.
There is the black family from New Haven, Connecticut , where the downward mobility since the Second World War has been ‘unequivocal’, and the only hope of economic salvation for the youngest generation appears to be to sell drugs. Then there is the east Texas community riven by racial strife and, yet again, cocaine. Or there is the Guerrero family from Mexico, who have settled in the rich farming region of the Yakima Valley in Washington State and are the modern equivalent of characters from a John Steinbeck novel. Finally, Finnegan explores the strangest American social landscape of all – the ‘burbs’ (in particular, the suburbs of Los Angeles), and the hopeless, rootless white underclass who are searching for some kind of meaning to thread together the bits and pieces of their lives. These are not cheerful stories. The thought of reading a book, any book, would seem strange to many of the modern American characters uncovered by Finnegan. They are products of a television culture and a consumer-driven society which mean that the average schoolkid will see 380,000 TV commercials by the time he or she leaves high school.
Finnegan addresses yet another American paradox: within the United States an opportunity society and, effectively, a caste society co-exist. Some Americans can break free of their roots and prosper, pursuing the American Dream; others, like those treated here, are stuck in a marginal existence where they generally do not vote, do not join in associations, do not really participate in the success of their communities. Finnegan chillingly quotes a child psychiatrist who concludes that children as young as eight realise whether they are to be winners or losers, part of the opportunity mainstream or part of the underclass, and that this realisation colours the rest of their lives.
Cold New World, subtitled ‘Growing Up in a Harder Country’, clearly makes the case that the United States is producing a lost generation – but grown-ups have been complaining about the frivolity of youth at least since Hesiod in the eighth century BC, and lost youth has been an American cultural theme for decades, way back through the Beat Generation of the Fifties to the Civil War. This points to the greatest weakness of the book. Finnegan’s thesis is compelling, his reporting thorough, his examples of wasted lives sometimes moving, his perceptions acute, and his conclusion about the chasm at the heart of American society frightening. Yet so much of what he argues is better illustrated elsewhere, especially in fiction. Richard Price’s novel Clockers, about the drugs trade in New Jersey, is a far more sympathetic portrait of disaffected black youth than Finnegan‘s account from neighbouring Connecticut. Never once did I feel truly engaged in the difficult choices of these real people, largely because Finnegan’s prose is thoroughly pasteurised. It reads like one of those long Sunday newspaper articles crammed with facts that you do not really need to know, and you wonder whether you should skip ahead in the hope of the author’s getting to the point. Finnegan does get to the point. His point is extremely serious. But getting there is not much fun.