... a sprawling, fascinating journey through the dawning decades of the 21st century ... After probing each of these sites through acute observation, extensive interviewing and dogged research, Osnos weaves an intricate tapestry that gradually reveals how Americans experienced the last two decades. Osnos’s depiction most prominently features compelling characters whose lives capture the main points he wants to make about each of his places. Many are memorable ... Although Osnos is at his best as a teller of captivating stories, he does not shy away from probing significant legal and policy changes that enriched Greenwich and impoverished South Chicago and Clarksburg ... Osnos’s keen journalist’s eye is always on the watch for the shocking statistic ... After this jeremiad for a nation in crisis, one wonders how Osnos can possibly suggest a way out. And not surprisingly, given his approach all along, he finds hope in the most American of solutions: initiative by individuals ... somehow, after such a powerful, 400-page disquisition on our nation’s ills, it is hard to believe that will be enough.
Wildland is heavy on context, as Osnos supports his narrative by citing scholars of every stripe ... Wildland is at its best when Osnos offers intimate portraits of the men and women in the three communities on his radar. Even the scoundrels are depicted with sensitivity and empathy ... Wildland is written in first person, which often gives the book a satisfying immediacy ... Sometimes Osnos tries too hard to make the story personal ... Osnos delivers a vivid if dispiriting portrait of West Virginia, where coal companies pollute the water, vulture investors make out like bandits, and workers are abandoned ... Osnos wrote Wildland in real time, meaning he didn’t know how the book was going to end, and my sense is that Osnos is conflicted about his own story. Whatever hope he may have had for an optimistic conclusion is overrun by events.
At its best, Wildland has an appealing shaggy-dog quality, as Mr Osnos listens to people tell stories of their lives in the two decades since the cataclysm. But as chapter after chapter derides typical liberal bogeymen—guns, money in politics, fossil fuels—it becomes predictable ... oracular, more-in-sorrow-than-anger pronouncements about the country’s fall from grace say more about Mr Osnos’s views and perspective than about America’s trajectory in the 21st century ... lamenting that things would be great if only they went back to how they were before, when citizens cared for each other, is a form of misty-eyed left-wing Trumpism. Those who already agree with Mr Osnos will find confirmation for their beliefs in his book. But, character sketches aside, it will tell most readers very little that they did not already know.