This first book of the U.S.A. Trilogy manages to be lots of fun and explicitly "Modernist" at the same time — eat that shit, Joyce. The secret is that dos Passos separates the Modernist passages out from the main narrative as "Camera Eye" and "Newsreel" sections of contextless headlines and oral histories, which can mostly be ignored or skimmed. They're short and painless anyway. The actual narrative follows five or six different individuals, all of whom start off as salt of the earth and most of them end up that way too. The writing is highly colloquial.
The book provides an interesting social history note in that all of the men in the book are forever trying to figure how to find sexual satisfaction, and have few choices: either going to a brothel (and picking up a bug) or pressuring their girlfriends into pre-marital sex, which in this book always, always leads to pregnancy. Good to read a book from 1930, however, that very openly discusses that people actually have sex and get up to no good without it being clouded in oblique language. Not exactly "gritty" social realism but feels like an accurate version of living in the 1910s.
Dos Passos was a big leftist in this era but he should be commended for not being too heavyhanded. He is constantly drawing labor leaders and Wobblies as fuck-ups and fuck-offs.
I recommend the book as a breezy read that also qualifies for literature. Anyone read the next two installments 1919 and The Big Money?