One of the great givens of modern literary criticism is that novelists – as opposed to social scientists or statisticians – have lost the ability to take the pulse of the societies they inhabit. Is Martin Amis, say, a more reliable guide to the state of England circa 2008 than the latest batch of figures from HMSO? The jury is probably out on that one, but eighty years ago, and particularly in America, such a question would have been answered with a resounding ‘yes’. To read a novel like John Dos Passos’s near-half million word U.S.A. (1930–36) is to be offered an extraordinary coign of vantage on the pullulating ant heap of American life in the first thirty years of the twentieth century. Dos Passos’s characters range from rackety financiers heading for a fall to down-and-outs looking for the price of a meal. His theme, as this subject matter implies, is the material and spiritual consequences of a political system in which ‘liberty’ ultimately turns out to mean the freedom to exploit other people, and the impression left in the reader’s mind by this 1,200-page agglomeration of grim naturalism and modernist trickery is of a world that is moving far too rapidly, in which everyone drinks too much and drives too fast, with death and disappointment lurking just around the corner.