Review: Riding to Nowhere in Public. On "Americosis" by Sam Forster Print E-mail

Americosis(The American Spectator January 2, 2024)

One of poststructuralism’s simplest dictums — if you can say any French literary theory seeks simplicity — speaks to why the world and our experience of it is not organized with binary oppositions, gender inherency, or the like, say, good and evil, man vs. nature. Life is just too fluid, too random. The philosopher elites didn’t invent rhetoric to systemize argument. Rather, rhetoric arose to handle the tensions of daily exchange, involving a lot of haggling and fisticuffs. Indeed, neither the material nor the spiritual realms exist as pre-planned no matter how much categorizing we insist they answer to. Sometimes our lives stumble on a purpose, which, the stumbling, is the point — purpose is not intrinsic. I was reminded of this poststructural axiom often while reading Sam Forster’s Americosis.

Forster, a Canadian, moves to Dallas, Texas, and to get to work he takes the bus. From those facts alone (origin, city sprawl, no car), we deduce the thematic direction — the dread of eating, moving, and working in Big D. Theme, though, carries tone, the emotional load, and here it’s punitive, angry. The reason for our peculiar U.S. “dysfunction,” Forster decides at the onset, is the result of “three major cultural characteristics: a pathological attachment to the automobile, a horrifying apathy toward the obesity epidemic, and a deeply engrained fetishization of employment.”

Note the critical nodes. Our “attachment to,” “apathy toward,” and “fetishization of” our social failings are culturally codependent, as in, particularly American. Our distress is “pathological,” “horrifying,” and “deeply engrained.” Our woes are viral, of which we are incapable of addressing or changing. Why read on if there’s no hope?

Besides forecasting the book’s creed, I wonder about Forster’s choices — and placing them up front. Given someone in Silicon Valley, for example, I can imagine a different set of conditions just as frightening and arbitrary to our social well-being: useless products that bankroll greed, apps that ramp up social media trolls, and the heavy breathing of artificial intelligence, its “fixes” recalibrating the usefulness of art, scientific discovery, and sweat equity.

Forster is a big-league grumbler, a top-down theorist at that. Eliminate cars, fatness, and “wage slavery” and we south of Canada dwell in a comparative Eden. I can’t fault his concern for America’s poor. But his case howls with Marxist bloviation, a young writer crying wolf (buoyed by his prize-awarding Toronto press) when other contemporary writers, among them Andrea Elliott in her 2022 Pulitzer Prizewinner, Invisible Child, have profiled urban decay with journalistic integrity. It’s hard to balance Forster’s rhetorical failings with its experiential wandering. After all, its target is nothing short of a national disease: Americosis, a neologism that echoes psychosis.

In the opening chapter, we hear some harsh stage-setting judgments. Forster says Dallas is “decidedly unlivable,” the total opposite of his home city, Montreal. He need not provide stats for the debacle in north Texas, he says. “You just need to be in the mix, on the ground.” To be in or on, I’m afraid, is not to write. Why don’t Dallasites ride shuttles, trains, or buses, which, granted, are underfunded and underused transport systems? In a word, too many cars. Does one really cancel the other? Living in the thick of it also shines a light on what the poor consume, their diets bent by “a state-subsidized food complex that actively infuses everything we eat with poison.” Whoa! No wonder too few take the toilet-less bus. A regimen of Do-Rite Donuts and Wendy’s Baconator means driving home to the can ASAP.

Forster carps on our country’s “ruin” via tragedies of needless car-ownership, trans-fat gluttony, and soul-crushing jobs in “hospitality.” But that’s not to say rays of sunlit prose are absent here. As the author gazes querulously at his surroundings and fellow travelers, the polemic is muted and the writing starts to spark, filmically so.

Like the documentarian Frederick Wiseman, Forster possesses a kind of cinema verité style for his subject, the 4,500 homeless who keep going thanks to the city’s many bus-stop hangouts and rush-hour rides to work, a system of day-and-night trains designed so no one violates the loitering law because riders are ever in motion. There are prostitutes who give blow jobs at 7 a.m. in the back of the bus; several smelly characters get on to glower and salivate at Forster; a guy twirls a handgun for an hour with our worried author helplessly crouching (though why not bail and catch the next train is a mystery); and the coup de grȃce, a man drinking “Purell mimosas,” hand sanitizer mixed with Sunny D, a sustaining shot of 70 percent ethyl alcohol.

Sights rendered like these are felt writing, lingered on for the drama: “[I]t’s always discouraging to notice the barren walls and remember that you and all the people you’re riding with are not worth selling to.” And this crisp description: A female rider, “reeking of exhaustion and menthol cigarettes,” and her “inexpressibly sincere eyes that seemed to tell a much more forceful and descriptive biography than words ever could. They were those iconic Afghan Girl eyes that make for convincing humanitarian ads and public murals that the public actually enjoys. They were alive and gripping, but tremendously sad.”

Such portraits, gritty and sense-based, comprise the middle current of a book trying to get out from under the dogmatic assertions about what’s wrong with the rank-and-file low or no income, though the worse crime seems to be they’re suffering because of air-conditioning, sedentary lifestyles, and cowboy culture.

His contrastive turn on Dallas’s relative safety — car vs. bus — is emblematic of the book’s rough patches. It’s believed the car is the safer vehicle. But when a woman is murdered on the bus, a media firestorm ensues, and the public feels terrorized by the news flash. Forster argues that in most cities accidents and death from driving are far worse than riding a train. But I don’t think public transport compares to people alone and cozy inside metal hulls. People feel secure in their cars, even if it’s an inaccurate fact.

Granted, America’s public spaces, in open-carry Texas, are sketchy at best; parents with kids rarely ride the bus while the city’s sprawl makes targeting one’s trip frustrating. What’s Canada’s secret? Don’t mirror America? Hardly. Both countries are capitalist economies with government subsidized or owned trains and buses. We avoid those conveyances for utilitarian reasons — crime, access, convenience, the scary clientele — which has little bearing on body weight or a crappy job. Those are consequences, not causes. Would millions on Ozempic change anything about Dallas Area Rapid Transit? I doubt anyone’s walking to work, skinny or not.

Forster admits, in passing, that the excursion horror of Big D does not afflict cities equally. Other urban areas are less auto-shaped, have more parks and public space, and are highly walkable. I’d argue these are cultural distinctions, bred on a city council’s pride, its budgetary fairness. Working urban transport includes Washington DC, New York, Minneapolis, even Los Angeles. Beware of carmageddon, you say. But LA’s commuters, according to Forster, use buses and trams ten times more than Dallasites. Dallas is not an outlier; much of the Sunbelt is set up like a Chik-Fil-A megamall — Phoenix, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Houston. Still, if L.A. can change, then it’s possible to turn the container ship of a city’s institutional self-regard in a new direction.

Last, a comment by a DART rider may encapsulate Forster’s rant about Southern-fired human failure, of which I’m not sure which of his bad actors and corporate colonizers caused which social ills. Was it McDonalds? Ford Motor Company? Motel 6? Is it the small but hapless users of city services themselves who all would agree deserve better? “To me,” one less fortunate DART patron comments about another like him, “he is an irresponsible bum who does not know how to work hard and smart, because if he did, he would not be taking the damn bus.”