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Book Review : Skimming America's Recent Past

January 06, 1988|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

In the New World: Growing Up With America 1960-1984 by Lawrence Wright (Alfred A. Knopf: $18.95. 328 pages)

Sometime ago, when I gave up a career as a foreign correspondent and returned to New York, an editor on the paper where I worked--not the Los Angeles Times--came up with an initial assignment. I was to spend a few days driving around New Jersey and then write about it as if it were a foreign country.

I did, and the piece was killed. "Too foreign," the editor explained. But he was being polite. In fact, it was too superficial. Too superficial, that is, for a subject that a great many readers knew or had heard quite a bit about. Familiar generalities about New Jersey, however well expressed, were barely worth the return toll on the George Washington Bridge.

"In the New World" is a lot better than that, but it suffers from the same difficulty. Lawrence Wright, a Texas journalist, is a former child of the '60s. His notion was to write about the life and times of his generation up into middle age.

Among his topics are Kennedy's assassination--Wright was 16 in 1963 and lived in Dallas--his own transition from a devout middle-class youth to rebellious counter-culture to cautious neo-liberalism, and the impact upon him and his contemporaries of radical life styles, left-wing protests, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, Watergate, Iran, and the passage of Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan.

Sweeping, Superficial

But what Wright has chosen to explore is the most explored, interviewed, analyzed, televised generation and pair of decades in our history. He remembers what we have not forgotten.

And his exploration of the events and of his own growth is, by intention, sweeping and superficial. He is sometimes graceful and shrewd. But he is mowing a trimmed lawn with his blade set high.

"This book," he writes in an afterword, "is neither a formal history nor a straightforward memoir but a half-breed offspring of both genres." A writer can transform familiar events by going deeply into his own experience of them. But, the author continues, "I did not see my life as being interesting, even to me; it was, at best, representative of my time and my generation."

Wright is so representative, in fact, that he runs the risk of disappearing altogether. So does almost everyone else. He marries, for example, a fellow student named Roberta, but after a brief description of their initial attraction, she is simply named now and then as accompanying him on his travels. At the end, he thanks her for their happy marriage and for working so that he can write.

A Welcome Touch

From time to time, there is a welcome touch of some particular and individual experience. His early awareness of civil rights issues is made concrete when he tells us about acting as student host for Dionne Warwick, who was to sing at Tulane University, and having to threaten to go to the newspapers before the manager of her New Orleans hotel was able to "find" her "lost" reservation.

A rather generalized account of his time as a teacher at the University of Cairo--a post he took to meet the requirements of his conscientious objector draft status--is enlivened by an account of his manservant, Shaffei. There is a beginnings of a portrait of his father, a self-made Dallas banker whose conservatism was tempered by an unpredictable independence.

But many of the book's memories approach the generic. Wright's arguments with his father are referred to more than concretely described, and his college days are conveyed with little flavor.

The descriptions of his feelings and opinions--he hated Nixon but later came to have some sympathy for him, he loved Kennedy but later became skeptical, he admired Carter but found him unable to use power effectively--seem designed to represent rather than to evoke. Occasionally, in fact, you may wonder whether Wright is writing a portrait of his time, or whether his time is writing a portrait of Wright.

Hasty Summaries

As for the public events of the two decades, Wright tends to fall into journalistic summaries, sometimes hasty ones. He is thorough and interesting in describing the mood in Dallas during the Kennedy years, and the aftermath of the assassination. Even here, though, he assembles his portraits at second-hand--inevitably, of course--and many of them are familiar.

Wright has some shrewd insights. Writing about the campaign rivalry between Kennedy and Nixon, he pins down the former's ease and the latter's awkwardness with a neat phrase: "Kennedy showed us what he wanted us to see. Nixon showed us himself showing us what he wanted us to see."

He recalls his decision to drop back in after dropping out, and of finding it hard to get a newspaper job of the kind he felt he deserved. There was too much competition from his fellow former dropouts.

"The Baby Boom's enemy was itself," he writes. "It turned out that everyone wanted to be somebody, not just me. The problem was we all wanted to be the same person."

This kind of thing is relatively exceptional. To obtain his sweeping effects, Wright uses a lot of windy language and shorthand cliches. Camelot was "an American court where the rich, the glamorous and the powerful congratulated each other." He writes of Marilyn Monroe: "Fame was a great adventure for her but she suffered the consequences." Lyndon Johnson was "larger than life." Contemplating Nasser's assassination, "I thought again about the mischief that great men cause."

Knocked Flat

He expresses sympathy, quite originally, for the resentment of the Third World against the domination of the United States. As a Southerner from Texas, he writes, feeling decidedly second-class in relation to the East, he too had sometimes thought of himself as being pushed around. But when he tries to strike a balance, he knocks himself flat.

"America was not innocent but was also not guilty," he writes. "It was not good but it was also not evil."

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