"Unless you’ve been residing in a national wildlife refuge, you probably hear a lot about Wal-Mart," begins The United States of Wal-Mart, by Denver writer John Dicker. Being anti-Wal-Mart is so popular these days, it can be hard to separate the good criticism from the bad. But Dicker’s book clearly qualifies as good. It is a viciously funny, irreverent and well-researched look at the discount giant and the country it increasingly feeds, clothes and employs.

Making it clear that there is more to Wal-Mart’s ascendancy than the decision "to Wal-Mart or not to Wal-Mart," Dicker finds a culprit in the "cult of the low price." This allows Wal-Mart to survive in a love-hate relationship with its customers, many of whom object to its negative impact on their communities, yet can’t get past the fact that shopping there saves them money.

But Dicker does more than harp on Wal-Mart’s destruction of Mom-and-Pop stores and prosperous small towns. The chain, he points out, which still has its base in rural America, is now set on penetrating the urban frontier. This puts the urban poor in a unique situation. When Wal-Mart sets up shop in areas where employment and affordable food and clothing are both in short supply, it may serve as an actual beacon of hope in a bleak economic situation — not simply the change for the worse that middle-class activists decry.

Dicker also has an original suggestion for local activists determined to fight the discounter. By putting politics aside, he says, and focusing on more mundane concerns — such as a proposed store’s effect on traffic — they might be able to counter the corporation more effectively than they can with impassioned pleas for social justice.

The book stands out among the emerging anti-Wal-Mart literature because it refuses to be a liberal rant against globalization or a nostalgic memoir of a small-town, pre-Wal-Mart America. Rather, it presents a more nuanced understanding that better reflects the complex world Wal-Mart hopes to dominate.

The United States of Wal-Mart
John Dicker
245 pages, softcover $12.95: Penguin/Tarcher, 2005