Picks and Pans Review: The Great Divide

updated 11/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Studs Terkel

The ability to listen and the patience to exercise that ability are talents so rare that Terkel's books are always engaging. In such previous works as Hard Times and The Good War and in this one, he has transcribed conversations with a wide range of people—many of them men and women who rarely have access to any kind of public forum. The results are often as intriguing as a bus ride on which the people in the seats behind you are discussing something they care passionately about. Chicagoan Wilma Green, for instance, tells Terkel how she has worked her way up from poverty to a job with a city alderman, serving as a kind of citizens' advocate. "I still see my mother," Green says. "She said, 'Leave it to Wilma. She figured out a way to make money. Makin' trouble and gettin' paid for it.' " What makes this book less satisfying than most of Terkel's earlier projects is its uncertainty of focus. Hard Times was devoted to memories of the Depression and The Good War was about World War II. The subtitle of this book is "Second Thoughts on the American Dream," but it often seems to be a collection of miscellaneous beefs about life. People gripe about the policies of the Reagan Administration, about unemployment, about organized religion, about the decline of the neighborhood tavern. If Terkel's point is that all of these complaints prove that there is a deep-seated malaise in America, he doesn't make it convincingly. This doesn't purport to be a scientific survey, and there are bound to be a lot of people everywhere at any time who are dissatisfied: Whether there are more dissatisfied Americans now than there were, say, in 1953 or 1978 remains to be proved. Terkel, who seems to be an unreconstructed '30s radical in a lot of ways, also remains obsessed with organized labor. While only 17 percent of the work force belongs to a union, he devotes much of the book to comments from disgruntled union members—disgruntled either at insensitive management and government or insensitive union leadership. Terkel's indiscriminate sympathy even extends to the National Football League players who struck in 1987, as if athletes making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and engaged in a unique business are akin to the desperate auto workers who were attacked by company thugs in the '30s. "Never in all the bitter history of labor-management battles has strikebreaking been so unashamedly espoused," he says of the NFL strike. Nevertheless, the chronic eavesdroppers among us can't help but look forward to turning these pages in the often fulfilled hope of coming upon a provocative comment. Think, for example, about this quote from Minneapolis Chief of Police Anthony Bouza: "The police world is hermetically sealed. We repeat each other's myths. We only talk to each other. The cops are not communicating with the outside world and never have. We learn our own things." (Pantheon, $18.95)

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