Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Read this book if you like junkies and trains and not good writing

"The Mole People," by Jennifer Toth

Though not very well-written--in fact, well-written is not a phrase I would ever use in describing Jennifer Toth's book--it is a book worth reading if you're a subway connoisseur and/or an urban myth junkie. Frankly, I am both, which allowed for a quick and pleasant, if somewhat grammatically irksome read. 
Ms Toth plays the role of the anthropologist documenting a rugged, undiscovered, literally underground scene, where she meets many characters who are clearly interesting and attempts to emphasize their fascinating lives, but the overall lack of structure for the book impedes her ability to effectively develop them throughout the work. Characters are generally considered more important in works of fiction, but in this non-fiction piece, it is they who help her tell the untold story of the mole people, and therefore they must be all the more vivid and tangible to the reader.
When reading this book, it becomes difficult to wonder how a young, upper-class white woman (who is not a native New Yorker) was able to delve into the dirty tunnels of New York City and uncover information about a group so insular they remained a legend until Toth's work. Though she details some of the grittiness involved in her investigation, and even narrates a few perilous situations she manages to survive, she is mostly unconvincing in her description of why she, of all people, was able to penetrate the dark recesses of New York City's underground community. Though perhaps it is not a very serious defect in her book, it certainly bothers my native New Yorker sensibilities. 
The greatest flaw of the book--ah, now we come to it. I've put down all my middling complaints, here is the real one--is her inability to coherently organize the book and her experiences to create a comprehensive or compelling story for the people she documents. 
But I'll end on a positive note, because I am not trashing the book, I'm even tentatively recommending it. Ultimately, the greatest attribute of the book is one that she did not design: the subject matter. Who doesn't like reading the sordid details of a junkie's habit? Or learning about the mysterious community that is so hermetic the author only hears about it from other communities? As humans we have a fascination for that which eludes us, and that which is deep, dark and clandestine. A mythical underground community comprised of society's untouchables both literally and figuratively fits that description. Excellent choice on subject matter, Ms Toth. But a recommendation for the future, from a veteran reader: You may be an excellent anthropologist, in terms of accessing an enclosed community and documenting untold stories, and a compassionate reporter for a neglected and rejected group (both self-imposed and otherwise), but you are not a good writer and your next work would be best aided by a collaboration with someone more adept in the organization and writing departments.


  1. in all fairness to Ms. Toth, while I will agree it is poorly constructed, "mole people" never claimed to be a cohesive work. The book is a compilation of NY Times weekly entries. This loyal reader and unfortunate subway rider wants to know: what does the prophet have to say about the relationship between MTA and the underground homeless?

  2. New entry soon to arrive with material satisfying your curiousity.