Donna Gaines thinks she’s seen the future, and it’s four dead kids in a Camaro.
A sociologist who writes for The Village Voice, Gaines went on assignment to Bergenfield, N.J., in 1987 to report on a teenagers’ suicide pact. Four young people, ages 16 to 19, had driven a 10-year-old Camaro into the garage of an apartment complex and gassed themselves to death. All sorts of reporters had already enjoyed moralizing about the incident; so far as Gaines could tell none had bothered to listen to what Bergenfield’s teenagers had to say. But Gaines was inclined to identify with these kids — especially with the lowest-status group of all, who proudly called themselves ”burnouts.” She listened, and the result is Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia’s Dead End Kids an unsettling hybrid — part reportage, part memoir, part social critique, in which she argues that desperate suburban kids may be the vanguard of American society in the ’90s.
The typical burnout in Gaines’ account is a young white man who’s too old to be in high school but too young to drink in bars. The only jobs available to him are the kinds that lead nowhere and pay minimum wage, so he can’t hope to find housing of his own. He goes on living with his parents in a suburb that’s supposedly middle-class but is really blue-collar and going down fast. By the time he’s 19, he’s hung around on the streets long enough to feel conspicuous, particularly to the cops, and yet he can’t leave. Even the Army won’t get him out of town if he’s had a drinking problem or used drugs. Besides, he figures his chances will be equally inglorious wherever he goes. He’s stuck in limbo — and the more the American economy shrinks, the more of him you’ll see.
The real question, Gaines says, is not why such kids kill themselves; it’s how so many of them resist doing so. The strongest parts of her book give the answer, charting the physical and social spaces these kids defiantly carve out for themselves — the parking places at 7-Eleven that they call their own for an hour, the music that provides solace. Gaines pays attention to nuances that other sociologists might miss, such as the different constituencies of heavy metal, hard-core, and thrash-the Catholic, Protestant, and Pentecostal modes of white teen music.
Gaines is not a great prose stylist — her writing, at best, approximates teenspeak and devolves from there into a muddle of journalese — and her powers of analysis are less than astonishing. Essentially she’s a reporter who should have been able to yell, ”Get me rewrite!” Unfortunately Pantheon Books couldn’t be bothered correcting obvious spelling errors, let alone editing her manuscript. So the reader winds up in a position similar to that of the teenagers, struggling on against official indifference. Is it worth the effort? When Gaines settles down to describe the kids’ lives, the answer emphatically is yes. She came back with the story nobody else could get. B