An extraordinary dissection by Powers (White Town Drowsing, 1986, etc.) of the plight and attempted resurrection of two small towns: Cairo, Ill., ``a violent, sorrowful little town'' perhaps breathing its last; and Kent, Conn., a ``prosperity-stricken'' rural town struggling to maintain its identity. Powers's towns have little in common. Cairo, at the southern tip of Illinois, has ``been dying for a hundred seventy years.'' Kent, a placid New England town, finds itself overwhelmed by the real-estate boom of the 1980's. One faces ``death by atrophy,'' the other, ``death by renaissance.'' Powers's meticulous examinations of the past, the hopes for revival, and the vivid personalities of each community reveal the towns' steady evolution to their current state. Following a ``breech birth'' in 1818, Cairo wouldn't build its first structure--prophetically, a tavern--for a decade. Described by Dickens as ``A dismal swamp...an ugly sepulchre,'' the town was populated by gamblers and prostitutes and assorted thugs. By the turn of the century, Cairo was a stronghold of white supremacy, culminating in well- publicized gunplay during the 1960's race riots. Current mayor Al Ross, leader of the neo-Nazi White Hats, is the most visible legacy of that era. Kent, in contrast, hasn't the colorful, volcanic history of Cairo; but therein, notes Powers, lies its problem. This scenic town in the Berkshire foothills has always attracted ``weekenders'' and ``summer people,'' particularly New York artists and writers who, while never actively participating in ``community,'' have added demand onto Kent's limited, fragile infrastructure and services. With the 1980's came the sudden influx of ``fresh money'' as developers and architects imposed their modernized, upscale vision of ``rural'' lifestyle on the community. The rapid overdevelopment left Kent with no real commercial tax base, and thanks to the onset of severe recession throughout New England, the town is now foundering. A revelatory work with a great deal to say about the mythology, history, and future of the American Dream.