rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is definitely one of the most fascinating non-fiction topics I have read about in a long time. Perhaps I am particularly vulnerable to this subject because I live in NYC and therefore spend a significant portion of my time riding public transit and passing homeless people, but this book opened up an entirely new window to me not only in terms of the possibility of people living in the subway tunnels under NYC (which I had never before fathomed), but also in terms of my views of homeless people and why they act the way they do. In spite of Toth's conclusions--and I must remark that she seems awfully brave to have done all the exploring and interviewing she did in order to write this book!--it seems like homeless people are merely "normal" members of society who have decided to remove themselves from the systems we have set up in order to nurse their particular neuroses or grievances with life. Abuse, prostitution, dependency, addiction, drugs, alcohol, violence--all of these things seem components of these people's lives, amplified by the fact that they are living unconstrained (for the most part) by societal rules. Even underground communities with "mayors" and "nurses" are not simply idealistic replacements for those aboveground, as Toth reveals just by documenting conversations with some of their inhabitants.
The book itself was well-organized by "topic" or type of person/relationship, although I wonder why Toth did not choose to write this book chronologically and allow the reader to learn about the tunnel people in the same progressive manner she did. This may have made for a much more compelling read, particularly because ultimately, she does not seem to be trying to make a particular argument with the book. It is my understanding that this whole thing started out as an academic thesis, and if that is true, then its format really hasn't progressed much beyond that. (E.g. the very informative but very dry and oddly placed Chapter 17: The Underground in History, Literature, and Culture.)
I may be partial to a good story, and The Mole People could easily have been written as one. I realize that not all non-fiction works best as a narrative. However, I also realize that most non-fiction does not "work" at all if it is boring. Ultimately, this book was an interesting read because of the journalistic truth to it as well as the unusual subject. The paragraph/sentence-level writing is good, but I do wish Toth had written it as a narrative. Either way, she is one brave and accomplished woman.