Cold New World
William Finnegan is a journalist who has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1987. He has been a reporter in war- torn regions of Africa and has written three books about his experiences: A Complicated War: The Harrowing of Mozambique, Dateline Soweto: Travels with Black South African Reporters, and Crossing the Line: A Year in the Land of Apartheid. In Cold New World: Growing Up in a Harder Country, Finnegan decides to tackle a different war, one of poverty and racism in America.
The book is divided into five sections, corresponding to the four different regions Finnegan has studied and the conclusions he has drawn. The book contains forty-three pages of notes, which provide rich historical detail and statistics, and a bibliography. Each of the four sections features a central person, who allowed Finnegan into his or her life, and is enriched by commentary from the person’s family and friends and from community figures such as police, social workers, and local politicians. Finnegan reports compassionately and fairly on his subjects’ lives, even though what he sees and hears sometimes makes him painfully aware of his own social prejudices and the advantages he had growing up. He describes himself as a liberal, and his ability to draw close to people so different from himself and elicit their opinions and histories is only possible from a liberal stance. Yet he decries “liberal consumerism,” which, he claims, has replaced any meaningful culture in people’s lives.
In each of the locations Finnegan visited—New Haven, Connecticut; San Augustine, Texas; the Yakima Valley of Washington State; and Lancaster, California— he found evidence of economic decline among members of his own generation, the parents of his teenaged subjects. Drugs played a central part in the local cultures of all four locations, but not all of Finnegan’s subjects were involved with drugs. In fact, only one parent was an active drug user. However, the parents of these teens were unable to provide them with even the standard of living they had enjoyed while growing up. Physical violence, either as an inevitable part of the drug scene or the street fighting of rival gangs, figured strongly in all the subjects’ lives. At times Finnegan finds himself shocked at the teens’ acceptance of vicious physical attacks and their ability to engage in violence. He is also troubled by the entrenched racism and the social assumptions of local police agencies and the political elite, as revealed through his interviews with them.
In the first section, entitled “New Haven,” we meet Terry Jackson, a sixteen-year-old occasional cocaine dealer whose attempts to renounce dealing and make a new start are constantly derailed. (Finnegan states in his introduction to the book that he has changed some of the names in this story, but apparently not in the others.) Although Terry has forbidden Finnegan from meeting any of his friends, the author does have contact with Terry’s mother, Anjelica, herself a drug abuser, his younger brother, Buddy, and his grandparents, who live in the same town. Finnegan notes the disparity between the lives of Terry’s grandparents, who own a modest home, and Terry’s mother, who lives alternately on the streets or in some type of public housing. Finnegan relates the history of the town, New Haven, Connecticut, and clearly traces the downward economic slide that has produced the world in which Terry must live.
The “easy” and large amounts of money available through the drug trade tempt even Terry’s mother, who receives gifts from Terry through this bounty. Although Finnegan attempts to maintain his journalistic distance, he is often moved to intercede for Terry with local authorities. Finnegan believes, probably correctly, that his presence as a white, middle-aged journalist often influenced the outcome of Terry’s travails, including a charge of cocaine dealing in which Terry was picked up in a general sweep. In despair at Terry’s public defense lawyers, Finnegan managed to arrange for a private lawyer to work pro bono on Terry’s case, which resulted in a dismissal of the charges. Although Terry wasted most of the opportunities that came his way, eventually he moved from Connecticut and found work in another city. A local social worker, Lisa Sullivan, said tellingly: “These kids know that the whole society hates who they are. And they can’t help who they are.” The selfless, concerned community activists working with the kids seem to be fighting a losing battle against the bleak environment in which they all live.
Next Finnegan examined a community in Eastern Texas, San Augustine, that had been torn apart by a major drug bust. Operation White Tornado successfully rounded up dozens of suspects and resulted in hefty jail terms for many, African American and white. A surprisingly small amount of cocaine was netted in...
(The entire section is 2020 words.)