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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Young and Restless in Dallas BY MICHAEL KING IN THE NEW WORLD: GROWING UP WITH AMERICA, 1960-1984 By Lawrence Wright New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987 328 pages, $18.95 DALLAS IS ONCE again in the news, as a featured place-not-tobe-from; this time a young police man has been shot in cold blood, reportedly amidst at least a few shouts of exhortation and approval from an onlooking crowd. The national press and the pundits have gathered, as usual, to mull the outrage and to wonder whether it is a symptom of Dallas itself or just another urban nightmare. I hold for the latter myself, but I must admit that makes less melodramatic copy. How much better to hold forth on the special iniquity of Dallasites, who are presumed to be unique among city-dwellers in the malevolence of their hatreds and their willingness to reach for their guns. Small comfort to the rest of us, living as we do among sunnier communities, happier climes. As a consequence of this book, Lawrence Wright is among those who have been called upon to pontificate on the nature of Dallas and its citizens. \(“I think Dallas was in a kind of hysteria over the last few days,” he was quoted. “It was as if all the fault lines in the city were presented in a way In the New World is partly about growing up in Dallas, where Wright lived as a teenager with his family from 1960 until 1965, when he went away to school at Tulane. But the “new world” of his title is an elastic location, initially describing the South and West, which since the ’50s had “erupted like Atlantis, a civilization that seemed to pop up overnight,” but by the end of the book apparently stretches from Florida to California, North Carolina to Mexico, or indeed anywhere Mr. Wright has hung his hat except perhaps Cairo, Egypt. \(As I recall, Atlantis is usually said to have disappeared Michael King writes about books and the culture from the sunnier community and happier clime of the Heights, near downtown Houston. The best passages of the book are indeed those about Dallas, of which Wright has vivid, first-hand memories, and for which he still retains the contradictory sentiments of a homeboy. He was growing up during the boom years his father presided over the growth of a storefront bank into a contemporary behemoth \(Allied Lakethe vitality of the city, frenzied with growth until recently. But its hidebound conservatism was oppressive to a youth, and Wright’s memories of the place flow toward and away from the Kennedy assassination like winds in a vortex. Indeed, he takes his title partly from a Kennedy speech \(“there is a new ghosts haunting the book is whether the “new world” is no Eden at all, but an airconditioned nightmare of hatred, reaction, and greed. Wright learned piety and patriotism in Dallas, as he watched his father move into the circles of local power \(the Dallas DAR. But even his conservative parents were stunned by the venom of the local varieties of acceptable political sentiment the “politics of paranoia” Wright aptly calls it and Wright himself, like most of his contemporaries, found himself increasingly radicalized by the pressure of the Civil Rights Movement and, more immediately for him, the Vietnam War. By his college years his political arguments with his father grew bitter and unrelenting, culminating in his defiant decision to become a conscientious objector. For his alternative service, he took a job teaching English at the American University in Cairo, and upon his return, he began a career as a writer and journalist. He has been, since 1981, a regular contributor \(now Contributing EdiTexas Monthly. Wright describes his book as “neither a formal history nor a straightforward memoir, but a half-breed offspring of both genres. . . . I did not intend to make myself a character so much as a guiding sensibility to the thoughts and passions of the moment.” He is somewhat apologetic about his own place in the book, as he confesses “I did not see my life as being interesting, even to me,” and intended instead to write “the story of an extraordinary generation as witnessed by one rather ordinary member of it.” His self-deprecation is misplaced, for the most effective sections of the book are the most direct personal memories, ordinary or not; the least effective, by far, are the extensive passages of potted journalistic history of the sort one finds in the Sunday supplements. The latter take up far too much of the book, indeed most of it, and there is little to say about them, as they are like an op-ed page without end: what happened to the Kennedys, what I think about Nixon, what it was like to watch Watergate on TV, why I liked Jimmy Carter, etc., etc. These pseudo-memories dominate much of the book and all of its last third, and by then Wright has entirely lost sight of his own true subject: not “America” since 1960, but “growing up” in a particular place, in a particular time. For that reason, this is a frustrating book; just when Wright has a hold on a particular and engrossing memory, which verifies his own experience and therefore that of his time, he generally drifts into a welter of representative thoughts designed, I suppose, to show how other people were having the same or similar experiences. Thus he remembers his first, almost instinctive rejection of religious certitude, during a church youth trip: Roy made his final appeal the next day. “I want everyone who loves the Lord to follow Johnny into the next room,” he said. “Anyone else, I want to have a word with in here.” I wanted to love the Lord, and I wanted to follow Johnny, but there was that stubborn new voice inside me that wouldn’t allow it. A moment later, Kathy [Wright’s sister] and I were staring at each other: we were the only people left in the room. The moment is personal and alive and should strike a chord with any reader who once surprised himself or herself in similar circumstances; and Wright moves from it to larger but still personal reflections about the shadow of the Holocaust and the Bomb. But he closes the chapter with a wooden recapitulation of Jack Kennedy’s career, and now-conventional doubts about his subsequent canonization. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 15