IN THE NEW WORLD Growing Up With America, 1960-1984 By Lawrence Wright Knopf. 322 pp. $18.95
Lawrence Wright tells us that "this book is neither a formal history nor a straightforward memoir, but a half-breed offspring of both genres." This is true, but unfortunately "In the New World" is a half-breed very much in search of an identity. For all its good intentions -- and it is loaded with them -- the book never manages to figure out precisely what it is and never finds a narrative voice with which to give itself distinctive expression.
Certainly it has the shape of a memoir. It opens in 1960, with the 13-year-old Wright moving to Dallas with his family, and closes in 1984 with his mature accommodation to the turmoil and change of the intervening quarter-century. He is his own central character, and he asks us to view those 25 years as he did: through his own eyes. The problem, though, is that he never succeeds in bringing himself into focus or in making himself sufficiently interesting and/or unusual to warrant such prolonged and intimate attention.
This is the central problem that the youthful memoirist faces, especially if the memoirist is unknown: How can I persuade the reader that my life deserves his time? Willie Morris solved it, in "North Toward Home," by identifying himself with the troubled South and by writing numerous passages of exceptional hilarity; Frank Conroy, in "Stop-Time," by drawing the reader deeply into his own effort at self-discovery; Maxine Hong Kingston, in "The Woman Warrior," by taking the reader into the unknown world of Chinese Americans and by vividly detailing the pain and pleasure that world gave her.
But Lawrence Wright is unable to establish any such connections, at least for me. Every page of "In the New World" is distinguished by his obvious decency and likability, and there can be no doubt about his sincerity. But in literature, if not in life, those qualities are not enough. A memoir needs electricity, even if of a low voltage, and this Wright never manages to generate. Even in what should be the book's most disturbing scenes -- his confrontations with his father over Vietnam and other issues of the day -- no sparks are set off.
The book is no more successful as a formal history of the period. For long stretches Wright suddenly disappears entirely from his story and presents us with dogged recitations of stories that even the dimmest among us surely know: a thumbnail sketch of Richard Nixon's life, for example, or a recapitulation of all the dreary events in Dallas on and after Nov. 22, 1963. Invariably, in retelling these twice-told tales, Wright's heart is in what I construe to be the right place, but that is not enough to make his telling of them any more interesting than anyone else's.
What he clearly has in mind is to construct a parallel between his own life and the country's history during this quarter-century. Moving to Dallas in 1960, he entered the new culture "spreading throughout the South and West"; witnessing, in that same city, the renomination of Ronald Reagan in 1984 he saw the ascendancy of that culture affirmed:
"What would the new world do with this power? It was still raw and brooding, more comfortable being on the resentful margins of power than in the complex center. The qualities that brought the new world to power were those of the grasping outsider. What it had offered to the country until now was cheap land and cheap labor. It had grown wealthy not through the establishment of great industries but by selling off its oil and gas and timber. It had little of the institutional or cultural maturity of the Northeast and few political leaders whose scope of vision extended beyond their own precincts. And yet the future of the country -- and to a large extent, I fear, the future of the world -- depended on the capacity of the new world to lead America. I had only to look inside myself to sense the uncertainty of that challenge."
All of which is nicely said, except that there is almost nothing in Wright's book to suggest that his own history has much to tell us about this "new world." Everything he tells us about himself indicates that although he may have been in that world, he was never wholly of it; instead he was always a bit on the outside, casting a jaundiced and reasonable eye upon the strange doings all around him. It is immensely useful to have people of such vision, and no doubt Wright will have valuable things to say to us in years to come. But he has not managed, in this earnest but disappointing book, to transform himself into an emblematic figure of his times.