At 480 pages, Joe Miller’s account of a year following, interviewing and interacting with a poor Kansas City high school’s debate team is, at times, a chore. A long, journalistic piece of creative non-fiction, Cross-X is a vaguely familiar, against-all-odds story that tackles the terrifically challenging but oft-generalized issues of race, class, segregation and privilege. Still, Miller’s scope is admirably wide, and as he profiles the members of Central High School’s debate team, he also has plenty of room to examine the state of contemporary American education; to meditate on the history of segregated schools; and even to examine a few of his subjects’ home lives in an even-handed way, all while maintaining a consistently compelling narrative voice.
Impressive though that may be, Miller, who is a Kansas City-based journalist, uses a bag of fiction writers’ tricks to propel the narrative, and the results are mixed. Ultimately, Cross-X suffers the curse of all creative non-fiction and it’s not entirely Miller’s fault. Like almost all long works of creative non-fiction the book cannot and should not be read as strict journalism (where Miller’s asides and editorial comments would be out of place) nor can the narrative be read and evaluated as fiction. The events Miller reports — his “plot points” if you will — are very real, and often quite dramatic. Still, when he’s quoting debaters or their coach, how much of it is constructed from memory? How much of it is from an actual recorded transcript? And how much is from imagination?
At times, it seems that the entire narrative — which follows Central High’s 2002 debate season — could easily be boiled down to a 30- or 40-page essay that more closely follows the team’s season and spends less time on exposition and scene-setting. But like David Simon’s Homicide and even Norman Mailer’s The Fight, where Cross-X succeeds, it does so because the characters and situations are utterly compelling and the social issues raised are timely and challenging.
Given the frightening inequalities present in American education, the seemingly endless debates about how to best fund our public schools, and the perennial problem of on-campus violence, Miller’s book is extremely timely, even if it doesn’t exactly make for snappy reading.