Bar-hopping through America’s economic desolation
Linh Dinh spent more than two years trekking across America, encountering people on the losing end of the economy. Dinh, a poet, blogger and photographer, hung out at bars and bus depots, homeless encampments and more bars, attempting to gauge the country’s decline.
The result is his uneven “Postcards From the End of America.”
Accompanying Dinh on his desolation triptych, we see the collapsed towns of Chester, Pa., and Vineland, N.J., as well as the Bottoms neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio. We meet barmaids, alcoholics and hapless baby daddies. The culture of poverty is drenching. About a Chester barmaid called Misfit, Dinh writes, “Misfit’s job is probably safe, but like many people these days she must be willing to switch jobs at a moment’s notice, do something entirely different to survive.”
Instead of stories, though, most of the short chapters involve a relentless search for the next bar and a perfunctory conversation with its occupants — as if to say this is the edge of America and here is where the country’s truths are found. There may be something to the idea that the only place to properly assess today’s America is from atop a barstool — I don’t know. But it quickly gets old, and feels too easy, when the scene is repeated over and over.
Dinh, who arrived in the United States as a Vietnamese refugee in 1975 at age 12, offers little understanding or analysis of why these people are where they are. Perhaps we should expect this from a book titled “Postcards,” but we’re never long enough in one place to feel the depth of the people Dinh writes about — even as we see his photos of some of them in the book.
More often we’re left with mere glimpses. Eric Hurt is a homeless 55-year-old born in Compton who once was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Dallas Cowboys. He averaged 17.8 yards in four kickoff returns for the team and carries around a photo of the 1980 team to prove he was once a member of it. That’s a tempting sketch of a man I wish I knew more fully.
Dinh also likes to go off on rants. Much of one chapter, before his stop at the town’s lone bar, is taken up against a “criminal government.” Barack Obama is a “lying psychopath” guilty of “staggering historical crimes.” He spends almost an entire page questioning fundamental events of Sept. 11, 2001. “You’re liable to get into a fistfight if you merely point out the absurdity of a skyscraper collapsing at free-fall speed without being hit by anything,” he writes. Dinh gives us no evidence, or reason, for what convinces him of any of this, yet these asides accompany us throughout “Postcards.”
The problem is, it’s hard to keep rants and bar tabs going for 368 pages. It’s also disappointing. It feels as though after traveling our country, Dinh found little that challenges what seem to be the ideas he had when he set out. If travel doesn’t change you, then it’s hard to see what will.
America may be collapsing. But railing and quickly interviewing drinkers and bartenders seems a thin way to tell that epic. Stories are out there that will pack the punch he seeks. (How I wished Calvin Trillin would have walked into one of those bars.) Yet finding them requires spending more time than Dinh invests, and it’s never clear why he has to rush off to catch his next bus just as he’s learning a town. The concept of a book as a set of postcards is intriguing until most of the pictures end up resembling each other. For it to work, a gripping prose postcard actually requires a lot of reporting.
He does hit a nice stride at times. A set of postcards from Bensalem, Pa., to Upper Manhattan to Levittown, Pa., and Wolf Point, Mont., are wicked sharp in their mix of detail with observation and commentary. He weaves Scorcese’s “Taxi Driver” railing at the “scum” with today’s taxi drivers from Pakistan or Ghana who are barely making it. His snapshot of Anwar from Pakistan, who sells purses, and his obese wife, who won’t venture out of their Bensalem apartment, is the kind of story I was waiting for.
Globalization “is not just about exporting decent jobs,” he writes, “but also about importing cheap labor until everyone everywhere makes just about nothing. That’s the master plan, dude, so although ningun ser humano es ilegal is self-evidently true, it’s also a smoke screen to make slaves of us all.” Alone, that might sound like ranting. Juxtaposed with imaginative reporting — Manhattan alone has 74 McDonald’s, 194 Starbucks and 200 Subway sandwich stores, Dinh points out — it works, and you begin to feel there might be an original American voice rustling around in his prose.
Dinh may be a crank or a documentarian — his book provides evidence of both. He possesses the admirable pluck to rummage around in worlds not his own in hopes of telling a larger story. Next time out, I hope he digs deeper, leaves his soapbox at the barroom door, and lets the people he meets and their messy stories do the preaching for him.
We see the collapsed towns of Chester, Pa., and Vineland, N.J., as well as the Bottoms neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio. We meet barmaids, alcoholics and hapless baby daddies. The culture of poverty is drenching.
Sam Quinones is the author, most recently, of “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic,” which won a 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award.
POSTCARDS FROM THE END OF AMERICA By Linh Dinh Seven Stories. 368 pp. $23.95