Bar-hop­ping through Amer­ica’s eco­nomic des­o­la­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD -

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

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