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The Boston Phoenix Teenage Wasteland

A New York journalist captures the desperation of American adolescents coming of age at the century's end

By Jason Gay

JULY 27, 1998: 

COLD NEW WORLD: GROWING UP IN A HARDER COUNTRY, by William Finnegan, Random House, 421 pages, $26.

Juan Guerrero, the affable protagonist of one of the four stories that make up journalist William Finnegan's powerful new chronicle of American adolescence, is a tall, sinewy 18-year-old who works on a grape farm in Washington's Yakima Valley alongside his union-organizing parents, Rosa and Rafael. Unlike his mother and father, who emigrated from Mexico in the late 1970s, Juan is very much a child of America. His speech is untouched by a Latin accent. He detests Mexican food, favoring Pizza Hut instead. He dislikes the mariachi music played by a local radio station, preferring the harder, grungy guitars of Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana.

In some respects, Juan's life is the very portrait of American assimilation. But as Finnegan's reporting shows, the almost total absence of true culture in Juan's life -- he rejects belonging to any group, large or small -- has left him misguided, aimless. In the valley, he is best known for his fistfighting skills -- in one memorable incident, Juan takes out an opponent by jump-kicking him with two feet. But his predisposition toward violence and his smart-alecky lack of respect for authority have also gotten him expelled from school, landed him on the grape farm, and severely limited his future. Even Juan seems to sense the danger of his situation, which grows particularly desperate when he becomes the target of one of the gun-toting street gangs that dot the valley. The world is closing in on Juan, and he is quickly running out of options.

More than anything else, Cold New World is about the kind of desperation Juan and countless other American teenagers feel at the century's end. The country is in a "strange, even an unprecedented, condition," writes Finnegan, who researched the book by spending substantial time with families in Washington state, rural east Texas, New Haven, and suburban Los Angeles. Even as the national economy expands, "the economic prospects of most Americans have been dimming." And few groups, Finnegan notes, have been harder hit by this cold paradox than the young people he writes about.

It's hard to imagine a journalist assembling a study of adolescence more exhaustive and far-reaching than Finnegan has here. The book follows the lives of Juan and his Latino friends in the Yakima Valley; Terry, a lively teenager who falls headfirst into New Haven's chaotic drug trade; several generations of families in San Augustine County, Texas, where an extensive FBI drug bust has torn a tiny community apart; and a crew of Southern California suburbanites knee-deep in white supremacy, crystal meth, and violence. Though there is no clear science to the selection of these locales and individuals, they are diverse, vivid, journalistically rich choices. In several instances, in fact, the author finds himself surrounded by events that will forever change the lives and communities of his subjects.

Finnegan, a staff writer at the New Yorker who has published three books about Africa, has composed a harrowing, uncompromising portrait of American teenage life that deftly manages to avoid both pity and nostalgia (which the author early on refers to as a "banned substance" in his investigation). Indeed, Cold New World is very much an urgent book, devoid of the intellectually detached navel-gazing that habitually plagues similar works of social journalism. Though Finnegan occasionally shows his age -- as when he refers to watching Snoop Doggy Dogg "strut and threaten on MTV" in the Guerrero household -- he more than compensates by acknowledging his limitations, not the least of which is the fact that he is white and most of his subjects are not. (In a humorous moment, one of Finnegan's subjects wonders aloud: "What it is about you and black people, Bill.")

Similarly, Finnegan is up-front about his occasional decisions to cross the invisible lines of traditional journalism and involve himself personally in the lives of his subjects. Though an editorial purist may object to these choices, they appear natural and wholly understandable, given the length of time he spends with the people he writes about (in many cases, the relationship between the author and his sources extends over several years). In fact, given Finnegan's knowledge of these teenagers' circumstances, it would seem stubbornly forced -- even inhumane -- for him to maintain a manufactured distance and not occasionally come to his subjects' aid. After all, though the landscape of Cold New World is numb and barren, its inhabitants are still very much alive.


Jason Gay is a staff writer at the Boston Phoenix.


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