Like a modern-day Dante, self-taught social explorer Eric Schlosser descends into the darker layers of American life in search of the very core of contradictions that defines the nation itself. His 2001 debut, Fast Food Nation, a super-sized stomach-turning expose of the fast food industry and indictment of corporate globalization, heralded the arrival of a social crusader for the new millennium. Schlosser is Michael Moore without the bullhorn, Hunter S. Thompson without the drugs, a cautious optimist who writes and speaks in the measured tones of NPR's All Things Considered. His is a welcome voice of quiet reason and contained outrage in these high-decibel times.
In his second book, Reefer Madness, Schlosser digs deep into America's black market economy that some economists estimate at $1 trillion untaxed dollars annually nearly 10 percent of our gross domestic product. He focuses on the three most lucrative underground industries marijuana, pornography and cheap migrant labor that have largely contributed to the unprecedented growth of the American black market during the past 30 years.
In three interconnected essays combining history and statistics with insightful reportage and fascinating interviews, Reefer Madness explores the ways in which the American underground has altered our nation's culture. In the title essay, Schlosser shows how America's war on pot has backfired, actually fueling the demand for the weed and artificially buoying its market price. The section on migrant workers, "In the Strawberry Fields," focuses on the faceless laborers forced by poverty to sleep in the fields in which they toil, often within yards of the upper crust communities that buy the fruits of their labor at bargain prices. "An Empire of the Obscene" is a fascinating portrait of Reuben Sturman, a self-made multimillionaire whose rise from staging Midwest stag nights to overseeing a global porn operation reads like the dark side of the American dream. According to Schlosser, the roots of the modern underground can be directly traced back to the late 1960s, when America's youth culture broke free from mainstream values and mores. A decade later, anti-tax and anti-government conservatives helped push the business of sin to unimagined levels.
Schlosser says the '60s marked the birth of our national addiction to consumption, whether of pornography, drugs or Happy Meals. "It's a complex legacy. A lot of what is best in our culture did spring from that time, from the environmental movement to women's rights and civil rights," he says. "But the darker side would be the drug culture and the spread of this culture. Even though I really believe that the marijuana laws are absurd, the culture surrounding drug taking is a very unhealthy one. I think a lot of the social causes of the '60s petered out into drugs and the drug culture."Schlosser's interest in social causes came about by accident. A native of New York City, he graduated from Princeton University with a history degree, then spent years as a struggling playwright and novelist ("I was remarkably unsuccessful at both," he admits). Friends finally convinced him to give journalism a try. His only brush with nonfiction had been as an undergrad in a class taught by the legendary John McPhee. "He had just a huge, huge impact on me," Schlosser says. "He was a phenomenal teacher and an incredible writer. It sounds so corny, but it was this class that I had taken a decade earlier that gave me the chutzpah to try, and also the foundation to build upon."A few story assignments from Atlantic Monthly magazine introduced Schlosser to the vast country west of the Hudson that he's been exploring ever since. He begins each project with extensive library research, burrowing his way down through general reading into academic and specialized publications.
"I don't have any researcher or anyone helping me. I enjoy the process of discovering and all the background reading. It's not miserable work at all. And when you then get out in the field, you know what you're looking for and the conversations are more interesting." One might imagine that pot farmers and pornographers are reluctant to be interviewed.
"They are and they're not," Schlosser says. "It's amazing who you'll meet if you just go to Indiana and sit in a bar. A lot of these people feel cut off from the media, cut off from the mainstream. Once it became clear that I wasn't a narc or wasn't going to rat anybody out, it was hard getting some of them to stop talking."A far bigger challenge is squeezing all the research and interviews between the covers. To help make room, Schlosser keeps his quotes to a miserly minimum and the emotional volume turned down low.
"I'm trying to get people to think, and the writing style is deliberately calm and not full of invective against people who may disagree with me," he says.
Working among America's least fortunate, whether migrant workers who sleep in the field or pot smokers serving life sentences, has had an impact on Schlosser. "The hard part is reconciling their lives with my life. The challenge is not just to have this expanding human experience but then to put into words that convey what I've seen. I've got to tell you the words don't even come close to the reality, no matter how hard I try."That process is not likely to get easier: in his next book, Schlosser will take on America's prison system. Despite the upsetting images that come with this territory, Schlosser remains an optimist.
"People can't believe it, but I am," he chuckles. "And I think it's optimism that allows me to tackle some very dark subjects to begin with. I mean, if I were totally pessimistic, then why even bother? But having been in meatpacking communities which are grim, and these farm worker encampments which are really grim, and the prisons which are the grimmest places I have ever been, it has left me even more optimistic. A lot of the trends I've written about are getting better. I'm not taking credit for it; I think the success of Fast Food Nation is due to the fact that people were starting to wonder about those issues anyway. I really am optimistic, at least in the long term."
Jay MacDonald is a professional writer based in Florida.