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Americans Speak Out On Their Own Land

IN his new book, ``Divided We Fall: Gambling With History in the Nineties,'' Haynes Johnson, for 25 years a Washington Post correspondent, conveys the trauma he says faces America by beginning and ending a cross-country journey at the foot of the National Debt Clock in New York City.

The ominous clock serves as a metaphor for a country Johnson says has lost a sense of how to deal with its problems. While once Americans thought anything could be resolved, he writes, in the 1990s they are more likely to throw up their hands.

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Johnson's book is a compilation of interviews with people from all levels of United States society. He finds a general sense of malaise and deep misgivings about the nation's ability to unload its burdens. But he also finds hope that the future will bring new growth and spirit.

Although he devotes several chapters to the faltering economy, Johnson points out that deeper issues, such as race and class differences, broken families, and a declining sense of community, are hidden behind the current economic revamping and will not disappear with the recession.

The author shows an impressive ability to evoke moving and revealing feelings about where the country is headed from people one might not expect to be eloquent, like youth-gang members and illegal aliens in Los Angeles, as well as other people such as Midwestern farmers, public school teachers, and small-business owners.

Johnson lets people air their grievances. One striking instance, in a chapter on race, concerns a black entrepreneur in Los Angeles who speaks bitterly of the disrespect he says is shown by Korean-American merchants toward black residents.

Meanwhile, a Korean woman whose family lost its dry-cleaning business in the 1992 riots asks how years of hard work could be reduced to rubble by a few hours of anarchy.

A frequent caveat sounded by blue-collar workers as well as bankers is that the nation's priorities are out of whack. In Texas, voters turned down a plan to force wealthy districts to share school funding with poor ones on the day that some 6 million Texans lined up for a shot at a lottery jackpot.

Johnson tries to address many of the country's problems in a single text, at times oversimplifying incredibly complex issues. In a chapter on education, he labels the public schools ``society's dumping ground.'' But the only schools he describes are in inner cities, where all of society's ills are magnified. His discussion of crime is similarly limited. He ignores the problems of schools and rising crime in suburban and rural areas.

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Another shortcoming of the book is Johnson's decision to include two sections on the Clinton presidency. This discussion of Clinton's first year in office is disappointing, as it focuses primarily on political issues. The bulk of the book is about common people talking about what ails their families and communities, not Washington dealmaking. Perhaps many of the people Johnson interviewed admire Clinton, but nowhere else in his book does he suggest that the federal government, or Clinton, is in a position to solve all of society's problems.

Despite these faults, ``Divided We Fall'' is a revealing and well-written look at America in the last decade of the 20th century.

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