A thoughtful chronicle of the middle-class author's journey among some of America's extremely poor people, but flawed by his failure to appreciate their ability to occasionally enjoy, let alone transform, their lives. Davis (Where is Nicaragua?, 1987; Hometown, 1982) traveled around the country and talked to economically desperate peoplesome homeless, some welfare recipients. He found out, in the words of one unemployed mother of two, that ``the poor aren't who you think they are. They may want what you want and not be able to get it.'' Davis does an admirable job of countering fashionable victim- blaming rhetoric about the poor. He also brings to life people who may exist for some readers only as abstract social problems: Young Kelso of Bangor, Maine, whose father left him at the bottom of a well for days, has just fathered a child himself; Bryna, who lives in shelters, wants to be a journalist. But Davis is so overwhelmed by his own recent discovery of extreme, systemic poverty that he cannot give poor people credit for creating ways out of it, much less for finding pleasure and love in their lives. He reports facts that seem to indicate that a situation offers hope, but his narrative will almost always suggest that it does not. If mom's boyfriend and kid seem to enjoy spending time together, Davis can only focus on the biological dad who left and the economic instability of everyone involved. One woman has pulled herself off of welfare, is working to buy her house, and is planning to adopt a foster child she has been raising. She smokes pot as a release, and Davis darkly equates her relatively benign habit with that of her crack-addicted neighbor. Davis is a decent storyteller, but his tale would be more nuanced if he were interested in some of the less abject aspects of his subjects' existence.