It's amazing that Eric Schlosser is still capable of being shocked. As the author of Fast Food Nation, the best-selling indictment of the burger-and-fries industry, he has peered into some pretty nasty grease traps. But get him started on marijuana laws, and he's almost at a loss for words. "Some of these people are facing 20 years in prison for selling a glass water pipe with a pot leaf on it. I mean, that's just unbelievable. When you think about the fact that the typical convicted murderer in the U.S. does 10, it's...it's reefer madness."
Reefer Madness (Houghton Mifflin; 310 pages) is the title of Schlosser's new book, and in it he widens his scope from a single industry to take on the entirety of what he calls America's "underground economy"--that vast, shadowy realm of financial activity that goes unrecorded because it's either illegal or unsavory or both. Like the fast-food business, the underground economy has ballooned over the past 30 years, to about $1 trillion, and Schlosser aims to find out why. He's hunting big conceptual game here, nothing less than America's troubled, hypocritical soul. "If the market does indeed embody the sum of all human wishes," he writes, "then the secret ones are just as important as the ones openly displayed."
Schlosser concentrates his search on three areas: pot, migrant labor and pornography. (In case you're wondering whether combining porn and economics makes economics interesting or porn boring, it's the former.) He follows the money down some dark alleys: into peep shows and prisons, subterranean high-tech hydroponic pot farms and camouflaged, garbage-strewn encampments of illegal Mexican farmworkers. He introduces us to Reuben Sturman, a humble Cleveland comic-book salesman who became the founding father of America's $10 billion porn industry and who deserves a whole book of his own. We meet Mark Young, a good-natured loser who got a life sentence--without parole--for his peripheral role in one marijuana deal. Schlosser has a gift for spotting colossal numbers that hide in plain sight: America's domestic marijuana harvest, he tells us, is worth upwards of $20 billion a year, making it the country's largest cash crop.
Schlosser isn't attacking the pot industry here; he's going after the institutional hypocrisies that force it underground while leaving far more damaging practices, like the abuse of migrant workers, to fester openly. What ties Reefer Madness together is Schlosser's passionate belief that America is deeply neurotic, a nation divided against itself into a sunny, whitewashed mainstream and a lusty, angry, deeply denied subconscious. He just might be the shrink America needs. His next book will take on the prison system, and it will complete what amounts to a three-volume history of the underbelly of late--20th century America. "In 1970 the prison population was just dropping," Schlosser says. "Last week they announced it was over 2 million. This is the land of the free, with the most prisoners in history! It's unbelievable!" See? He's still shocked. --By Lev Grossman