exercises in compound storytelling

Friday, May 23, 2008

Sudhir Venkatesh: Gang Leader for a Day

I finished this this morning; it's a tough read, but a fascinating story.

The story sort of moves by fits and starts as Venkatesh tries to get his dissertation written while trying to expand his coverage of the sociological issues and trying to escape the grasp but not the protection of J.T. He eventually admits that he hates being "hustled," but admits when confronted that he's hustling his sources too.

Eventually the federal government tears down the housing complex where the story is set, and the group he's been following disperses, and he moves on to an academic position. And along the way he gets the notebooks that formed the basis of the analysis that ended up in Freakonomics.

I came away not certain if Venkatesh was saying that the high concentration of potential customers is what made the crack gangs viable, or if J.T.'s situation was peculiar in that it came and went with the housing project.

Regardless, it's a difficult book and a fascinating story; I may very well read it again, which is more than I do for most non-fiction books. The real story isn't about Venkatesh, or about J.T., but about the society he studied: how it worked, why it was viable, etc. And it's admittedly an incomplete story.

I just wish other writers who wrote about social issues from the viewpoint of personal narratives (I'm thinking here of Barbara Ehrenreich and Nickel and Dimed here) were as honest.

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