Books: Hanging on the Edge

William Finnegan peers at America's youth and finds a dark world of postmodern lostness

Huckleberry Finn, if grimly read, might be a caseworker's report on family dysfunction, child abuse, alcoholism, clan violence, stupidity, hypocrisy and institutionalized racial oppression--a sweet classic, maybe, but also a fairly accurate picture of life along the Mississippi in the mid-19th century.

When one reads the title of William Finnegan's Cold New World: Growing Up in a Harder Country (Random House; 421 pages; $26), a journalist's sampler of youth on the margins in the 1990s, one wants to ask, "Harder compared to what?" To life in the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression? Or to growing up almost anywhere in the...

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