Book Review: Kids in America: A Gen X Reckoning by Liz Prato

Reviewed by L.A. Hunt

In Liz Prato’s latest collection of essays, Kids in America: A Gen X Reckoning, she examines Gen-Xers through first-hand boots-on-the-ground accounts. The thing is, as any Gen-Xer will argue, there’s no real club membership card or forgotten generation subscription, and they prefer it that way. They proudly defy categorization, which makes it difficult to sort an entire generation into generic categories. Despite this, Prato’s narrative fearlessly mines early eighties pop culture for the roots of present-day misogyny and bigotry, and the collection strives for tangible cohesion and concise analysis.

Prato, a Gen-Xer herself, tersely describes the expectations for the generation: “We were expected to be lawyers and doctors and architects and bankers and other people who did things with money. We would own and we would sell: land, oil, stocks, coaxial cable, uranium.” However, Prato acknowledges Gen-Xers also lost their sense of generational purpose to issues ranging from freak accidents and addiction to mental illness and white supremacy. As a result, Gen-Xers found themselves in “rehab and cults and homeless shelters and bankruptcy and morgues.” Her apt insights shed light not only on the generation’s ethos but its legacy as well, noting they were “the first generation in modern history to make less money than [their] parents and the last generation to live without fear of being gunned down in school.”

The most incendiary essays, the ones that utilize the titular “reckoning,” are where Prato interrogates the pop culture landscape of the time for its treatment of women and tackling (or rather, ignoring) of race. In “A Letter to Frederic Lyman and the Plethora of Other Private School Teachers Who Sexually Abused Their Students,” Prato’s direct address to the serial predator lays bare the systemic malaise around the sexual harassment that young women were simply not equipped to face alone. “We don’t want to run to our parents,” she writes, “but we also don’t have the skills to deal with a sexual predator on our own.” The open letter approach works to show the reader the recipient of the letter is a mere prototype, a composite of many recipients of many letters whose sexual harassment and assault was left unchecked for years. The open letter also allows Prato to heartbreakingly allude to the trail of women that might not have had the strength to survive their abuse, writing, “We also know, in our most tender places, that not all of us are still here, walking this earth, with our voices to be heard. But enough voices spoke that people listened.”

The essay “Scenes from My Youth” assaults the reader with its scorching examination of some of the most beloved movies and television shows from the late seventies and early eighties. Rocky, General Hospital, Meatballs, and St. Elmo’s Fire fail to escape her scalpel. She dissects them to reveal that, in their own way, they bolstered men’s patriarchal views of women. In each screenplay, the woman/love-interest tells the man/protagonist in no uncertain terms that no, she does not wish to be kissed or to participate in any sexual intercourse. But in each, the hero of the story doesn’t take no for an answer. On the contrary, he keeps pressing the issue, because surely it isn’t true that a woman standing in front of Sylvester Stallone or Bill Murray or Anthony Geary would refuse to have sex with them. But the plot—oh, the plot—as Prato proves, is written at the expense of the women; the men get to take what they want, despite vehement protestations and at great expense to the women. She writes:

This is the scene sometime—anytime—in the 1980s, when a boy and a girl, a young man and a young woman who know each other, are alone together. He makes a move she doesn’t want him to make, and she says no. She says stop. She says I’m not comfortable. She says let me go. What does he hear when she says these words? What does he picture? Does he picture a triumphant underdog, a soap opera hero, an irreverent jokester, the perfect guy, the sexy bad boy who saves the girl in the end? Does he see sex or power or violation or love or a woman crying on the floor?

Regarding race, Prato recounts the stories of two friends, Mina and Alicia, and how they were othered at her mostly white prep school in Denver. Mina, Native American, and Alicia, biracial, were both scholarship students, and Prato successfully probes the lack of student diversity and adherence to a “white-Anglo-centered curriculum with no multicultural programming; white, Eurocentric history classes; English reading lists composed mostly or entirely of white men; and no African American teachers.” Mina and Alicia agreed to be interviewed and willingly shared their experiences with Prato, who writes, “The story I wanted to tell about Alicia was what it was like being a Black girl in a mostly white prep school” and “The story I wanted to follow was how Mina went from attending a prep school in Denver’s wealthiest neighborhood to living on an impoverished reservation.” These statements bring to light a glaring shortcoming of Prato’s approach—are they really Prato’s stories to tell? How can she adequately show her readers what it was like to be a Black girl or Native American girl in the early eighties when she has white privilege? She goes out of her way to “other” herself, to align herself with her friends and signify to the reader that, while she isn’t a person of color, she still feels like an outsider:

We existed on the social margins. I was a misfit because I’d spent the first half of my freshman year trying to wear preppy clothes and trying to like the ‘popular’ kids, but found it was exhausting and didn’t make me happy. Alicia was on the margins because she was ‘other,’ because she was Black, because she was on scholarship, because she lived in the inner city. Even though we were othered together, we populated the periphery for very different reasons.

Although Prato demonstrates a level of necessary self-awareness toward the end of that particular quote, the totality of it is precisely the societal conversation the real world is conducting about marginalization and how whiteness, however difficult or demeaning, does not ever equate with the lived experiences persons of color have suffered at the hands of their (mostly white) oppressors. Prato acknowledges this and thanks Alicia for her frankness, yet that does not stop her from making these mistakes with Mina. Prato tells the story of Mina’s ownership of her Native dancing and her refusal to do a powwow dance for her school. Instead of it being a symbolic act of rebellion, Prato’s telling becomes a co-opting of Mina’s experience to appease Prato’s concern for the historical lack of indigenous representation. The very act of telling Mina’s story, even with permission, is appropriation. The only person benefitting from the retelling is Prato.

The author shows real depth and vulnerability in the essays where she ruminates on loss. She knows the terrain intimately, having lost her mother in her twenties then, years later, her brother and father within months of each other. She mines the loss we all experience, from the familiar (a friend’s brother to the streets) to the one-in-a-million (a different friend’s college mate to the Pan Am bombing in Scotland). Her palpable prose makes profound pain tangible.

The essays soar when Prato infuses her prose with Gen-X references—from bands like The Psychedelic Furs and Talking Heads to news about drugs like ecstasy—or through the way in which she interweaves her brother’s mental illness with Magnum P.I., or compares the plot of the movie Thunderheart with her friend Mina’s joy of Traditional dance. And her prose smolders when she describes the casual cocaine use of the eighties as “the burning in my nose, the burning in my veins, like a live wire let loose.” But she never quite sustains the promise of her own premise. Her “reckoning” of Generation X is more of an inquiring mind wanting to know, through a contemporary lens, how “we were called cynical lazy sarcastic…self-medicating impatient angry uncommitted purposeless unreliable slackers.” The answer—if there is one, and that might very well be the point—lies elsewhere.

L.A. Hunt is an author and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. She has worked in education for twenty years as both a teacher and an administrator and hopes for a future where her students will forge their own path and right the wrongs history has inflicted upon them. Lori is a graduate of the UC Riverside-Palm Desert Low Residency MFA program and the former fiction editor of The Coachella Review.