The United States of Wal-Mart / By John Dicker

By John Dicker. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, $18, 245 pp, softcover.

If the old saw stands that any publicity is good publicity, Wal-Mart may yet conquer the planet in a bloodlessly bland coup. From the pages of the Straight to the New York Times, Vancouver city council to South Park, Wal-Mart prompts attention galore through its sheer size and ubiquity. One peek at the seamy side of the big-box behemoth Sam built reveals stories enough to feed every media need, from neocon boosterism to prohibition from the pulpit, from entertainment-angle puffery to critical pieces in "pinko-commie organs like Fortune, Forbes, and the Wall Street Journal", as author John Dicker slyly puts it in his first book, The United States of Wal-Mart.

A contributor to Salon, the Nation, and many alternatives, Dicker reins in his jibes in the book's early part while documenting the rise to dominance of the largest and richest corporation, retailer, and grocer in the world and the largest single employer in North America, with annual sales higher than the GDP of 80 percent of the world's economies. Dicker tracks Sam Walton's tale from a Depression-era boyhood with a repo-man father through to cultivating a small chain of rural discount stores and a larger-than-life folksy mythos to today's post-Sam monolith. It's an entity so vast as to suggest some science-fiction deathstar of commerce, with private satellites beaming Wal-Mart TV out to stores and real-time sales and shipping data back to a 460-terabyte computer at the corporate HQ in Bentonville, Arkansas, an otherwise unlikely choice for the third-fastest-growing county in the U.S.

Dicker's critical claws emerge for the mid-book litany of Wal-Mart's bad behaviour. One imagines a truer version of Rollback Smiley, slogan altered to Everyday Low Standards. Voop! Health-care benefits drop and the number of hours for full-time rises. Thwack! Suppliers are squeezed or told to outsource. Click! Illegal workers are locked in on overnight shifts, and 10-year-olds stitch in Bangladeshi sweatshops.

A kernel of uplift comes in the end section on resistance, with advice on depoliticizing so-called site fights, showing that unsexy issues like traffic and environmental concerns fuel most successes in defeating new stores. Ultimately, Dicker blames our willing blindness to the true costs of bargains for keeping the beast fed and growing, and argues the need for a broader culture shift, both in and out of Bentonville.