In the New World

IN THE NEW WORLD is an outgrowth of an article Lawrence Wright authored for TEXAS MONTHLY about growing up in Dallas in the years before the assassination of John F. Kennedy. At the time of the assassination, Wright was sixteen years old. His account is, of necessity, secondhand, relying on others’ memories and his own research. This technique is acceptable, except that when Wright explores and analyzes this and other public events of the time, he plows no new ground. These events have been analyzed in greater detail by others, many of whom were directly involved. Inevitably, his reports suffer by comparison.

The book is, by intention, sweeping and impressionistic, and works well when Wright deals with public events. It is when Wright discusses his own growth in relation to the times that this intent becomes a liability. When discussing his transition from religious middle-class youth to nonbeliever to conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, Wright’s journalistic style keeps the reader at arm’s length, unable to feel with him as he went through what must have been profound changes. The arguments with his father over American involvement in Vietnam, never concretely described, seem like arguments over less momentous things, as if they were discussing curfew violations.

Though he writes knowledgeably of Muhammed Ali’s troubles with the draft, the ease with which Wright gains conscientious objector status--in Texas, where Ali was convicted of draft evasion--elicits only a response of personal relief. More is expected of the moment; more is expected of the book.