It's no news that many Americans live in a spread-out, privatized suburban wasteland without community or centers; that much landscape has given way to ugly sprawl; that this condition may be due to systematic policies on the part of government and industrial forces; and that the automobile is the engine that has driven us there. What novelist Kunstler (The Halloween Ball, 1987, etc.) does here is to explore and deplore these developments. Kunstler traces, from the nation's beginnings, the implications of changing architecture styles; the manifestations of our extreme emphasis on private-property rights and low regard for the public realm; and the destruction that our car-centered life has visited on American communities in general and certain profiled older towns and cities in particular. His discussions of specific places--chosen to represent such concepts as an ``old industrial metropolis gone to hell'' (Detroit); ``how to mess up a town'' (Saratoga Springs, New York); the ``most hopeful and progressive trends in...urban planning'' (Portland, Oregon); and sinister commercial myth-mongering that distorts small-town reality (Disney World)--lack the original ideas, cutting analysis, and stimulating insights that characterized last year's Variations on a Theme Park (ed., Michael Sorkin). But for a more popular audience, Kunstler provides an accessible overview that's all the more interesting and effective for his frankly expressed and all-enveloping viewpoint. If his attachment to the small towns of the past seems an insufficient answer to the problems of the present and future, his depiction of those problems is on target. And the author makes a persuasive case for convicting the private automobile of a gamut of 20th-century ills: the Great Depression; the death of the cities and of the family farm; the trashy consumerism that has driven the economy since the end of WW II; voodoo economics; the S&L crisis; and global environmental degradation. An informative and well-integrated polemic.