In the introduction to Hidden America, Jeanne Marie Laskas observes that “we become so familiar with the narrative [of celebrity culture] we forget that there are any others happening at all.” That’s how Kim Kardashian gets branded a success while the truck driver who brings valuable parts to factories is viewed as unimportant.
A veteran journalist, Laskas gets her hands dirty in this collection of profiles, many of which are based on her work for GQ. Among her stops: an Alaskan oil rig, a gun shop in Arizona and an NFL stadium.
Great stories define these occupations. A trip to a California landfill leads to an engineer-turned-PR guy who sees trash as an opportunity to improve the world, by using landfill gas to produce electricity. Working on a cattle ranch is a rustic throwback complete with cowboys, but its existence hinges on technology. For immigrant farmers, many of whom are in the United States illegally, the promise of a good paycheck comes with the daunting prospect of not being able to trust anyone.
No job is examined the same way, a tribute to Laskas’ talents as a writer. Her attention to detail is vivid: One man is “packed solid as a ham”; the Cincinnati Bengals’ cheerleaders are “glimmery and shimmery kitty-cat babes.” She is also adept at giving explanatory passages a conversational feel, essential in a book introducing readers to jobs and mindsets.
Laskas’ enviable stylistic flow hides her most useful tool: restraint. The chapters in Hidden America aren’t star-spangled odes to American pluck or pleas for working-class understanding. Laskas simply gives voice—as well as dignity and poetry—to America’s blue-collar ranks.