By George Packer
Hardback list: $26.00, Kindle: $11.04
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
No one can say when the unwinding began—when the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way. Like any great change, the unwinding began at countless times, in countless ways—and at some moment the country, always the same country, crossed a line of history and became irretrievably different.Brilliant. Harrowing. Gorgeously written. Read it. Now.
If you were born around 1960 or afterward, you have spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding. You watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape—the farms of the Carolina Piedmont, the factories of the Mahoning Valley, Florida subdivisions, California schools. And other things, harder to see but no less vital in supporting the order of everyday life, changed beyond recognition—ways and means in Washington caucus rooms, taboos on New York trading desks, manners and morals everywhere. When the norms that made the old institutions useful began to unwind, and the leaders abandoned their posts, the Roosevelt Republic that had reigned for almost half a century came undone. The void was filled by the default force in American life, organized money.
Tempting as it is to end right there, more obviously begs to be said about New Yorker staffer George Packer's new tour de force, The Unwinding, a beautiful blend of individual, independent narratives of life in the past half century as America becomes … well … unwound, as you can learn by joining me below the fold.
Loose, leisurely and lyrical, the book shines like a diamond. Packer, author of the lauded The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq published in 2006, takes his time to get to know a wide variety of Americans—from celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Jay-Z, Newt Gingrich and internet mogul Peter Thiel, to ordinary citizens struggling in dying cities in the Rust Belt and trying to forge new paths to entrepreneurship in the South.
It's a luscious blend of high art and narrative journalism at its finest. Sections are punctuated by abbreviated slogans/news blurbs/song lyrics from the era being introduced next, in acknowledged homage to John Dos Passos' U.S.A. triology, lending something as close in writing as you can get to a background soundtrack or quick film clip. The device, which could come off as corny and reaching, actually works smoothly to quickly orient the reader and nudge deeper memories (if you're old enough to have lived through the times) or serve as a fast-paced, creative introduction to the times.
While narratives of the famous are sprinkled throughout in some single-narrative snippets here and there, the heart of the book is the following of three arresting personalities, all of whom struggle in their own paths with the downsizing of dreams and aspirations as America begins unraveling. By far the most successful of the bunch in financial terms turns out to be Jeff Connaughton, for most of his career a self-professed "Biden guy" who ties his idealism and hopes to the future vice president, even as he leaves his senatorial staff, does some lobbying, begins a series of small and abrupt disillusionments with his hero, cycles back in for campaigns here and there. He cashes in and cashes out, just in time to lose a bundle in the housing crisis, and his journey from idealistic college student to burnt-out middle-aged political operative is heartbreaking in its own way. He lands on his feet, wiser and more clear-eyed, but also with a lot of time put in for a man and some causes he abandoned long before officially bailing.
It's a journey that will probably ring most true for insiders of all stripes, who often end up wondering what, precisely, their efforts and compromises were for in the end.
The tale of Tammy Thomas, caught in the downward spiral of Youngstown, Ohio, as its steel mills and factories closed is materially depressing but, strangely, aspirationally inspiring. Born to a struggling addict, Thomas spends most of her childhood grounded with her mother's mother as the older woman scrimps, saves, buys her own house and puts a roof over her daughter's and granddaughter's heads. From her, Thomas learns the value of hard work, of saving, of planning—all those quintessentially "American values" that are supposed to get you ahead. Derailed by an early pregnancy herself, Thomas nonetheless gets her college education, lands a job in the Packard Electric factory that she miraculously manages to hold through endless rounds of downsizing and closure.
Youngstown unwinds around her, losing businesses and population and hope. Gangs gain prominence, violence swings up, houses foreclose,. Finally, Thomas too loses her job—a desperate and horrifying development after decades of backbreaking work—but she finds a new (if less lucrative) calling in neighborhood organizing. But lo, how dreams and desires become downsized with the American companies; despite her relatively happily ending, there's a still a very real loss of faith in the stability of the core suite of principles long thought to be inherent to middle America.
The third main protagonist, Dean Price, also stars in a very American story, a go-getter from Rockingham County in North Carolina, coming up from a heritage of tobacco farming into the new unfriendly-to-farmers world of the late 20th century. Price feeds his future dreams on self-help success books and visualizations, pinning his hopes on regional development of biofuel—enterprising and forward-thinking indeed for the South—but in a time and place that's not ripe for them. His journey too is one of loss—of family, land, business partners, a restaurant chain he founds early on and later of his biofuel station and company—that ultimately lands him still traveling, pitching, reciting self-help soundbytes to keep himself going, and putting together a truly innovative (but shaky) patchwork of bartering, trading and trials of creating biolfuel at low-cost for hard-hit school districts.
We still hope against hope, Price's story tell us, and it keeps us going, even when we're damaged and reeling from the efforts. We still seem to try and hold on to the broken American dream.
In the unwinding, everything changes and nothing lasts, except for the voices. American voices, open, sentimental, angry, matter-of-fact; inflected with borrowed ideas. God, TV, and the dimly remembered past—telling a joke above the noise of the assembly line, complaining behind window shades drawn against the world, thundering justice to a crowded park or an empty chamber, closing a deal on the phone, dreaming aloud late at night on a front porch as trucks rush by in the darkness.As Chris Hayes did in his terrific Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, Packer locates the responsibility for the unraveling on the elite class of technocrats and insiders that truly rule us in our democracy, and this is not for him a matter of partisan politics (and it isn't in Hayes' account either). Rather, even the so-called more "populist" party of Democrats need to be held responsible, Packer maintains; for example, he writes of Robert Rubin, Jacob Lew, Rahm Emanuel, Larry Summers, et al:
All at the top of their field, all brilliant and educated to within an inch of their lives, all Democrats, all implicated in an epic failure—now hired to sort out the ruins. How could they not see things the way of the bankers with whom they'd studied and worked and ate and drunk and gotten rich? Social promotion and conflict of interest were built into the soul of the meritocracy. The Blob was unkillable.Ultimately though, the stars of Packer's searing work are those struggling daily against the tide of emotional depression, hard work and indifference from the powers-that-be, those who still manage to get up every morning, put food on the table and keep their spirits alive, against the background of an ever-more-failing America for the working and middle classes.
The Unwinding is a lyrical requiem for a lost time, for downsized dreams and surrendered hopes. It's beautiful, as I said, at the outset of this review, but also … heartbreaking, a lush work of art that hurts all the more for being about the loss of hope and promise in America.