Long before editors were suddenly dispatching reporters into the American heartland in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory, Linh Dinh was already there, nursing a beer in a bar with his notebook and camera.
A writer and poet, Dinh went on a journalistic mission from April 2013 through June 2015, hitting corners of the country avoided by most national journalists. Camden, New Jersey; Joliet, Illinois; Centralia, Pennsylvania are among the many not-so-glamorous stamps on his passport, which make up a collection of his somber and wry dispatches that were originally published in bits and pieces on webzines, “Postcards from the End of America.”
It’s finally in Centralia where Dinh discovers a metaphor that could embrace his entire book. A coal mine fire that erupted in 1962 still rages on there, causing a slow but steady exodus from the cursed town by tens of thousands of residents. Now living far away, Centralians sometimes return to their Ukrainian church for weddings and, more often, funerals.
“Nourished by coal, this town has been destroyed by it,’’ Dinh notes.
Taking trains and buses through the country’s many forgotten corners, Dinh clearly loves talking with people and sometimes taking their pictures. Their stories are mostly devastating. Economic misfortune through a wave of downsizing and lower wages often combine with alcohol or drugs for a nasty cocktail – and Dinh is there to share a drink with them.
Hovering over the book is Dinh’s own background and a bleak outlook on the country’s future. A Vietnamese refugee who came to America when he was eleven years old, Dinh is loudly ringing the alarm bell over American militarism. He believes that the country’s political system has victimized millions of Americans, including almost all of the book’s characters.
Politics lies mainly on the periphery for Dinh’s Americans. Capturing their attitude is Kurt, a man who Dinh befriends in Osceola, Iowa.
“Yes, it’s too windy, too cold, and you have all the politicians coming through, and they never stop coming. They’re always coming through,’’ he complains.
"While Dinh has nothing but contempt for politicians of any stripe, it would be curious to hear what he thinks about the Affordable Care Act, Social Security, or Medicaid. But policy isn’t the point of his book; it’s about the pain."
While millions of people living in places like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York are still scratching their heads about Trump’s victory six months ago, Dinh’s book anticipates the rise of someone like Trump long before he announced his candidacy.
As dark as his columns often are, their saving grace is Dinh’s love for humanity. As the fire rages in a mine miles below, Dinh is raising his beer, talking with another American survivor, and pointing his camera.