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The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America Hardcover – May 21, 2013
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*Starred Review* How have we come to feel that neither the government nor the private sector works as it should and that the shrinking middle class has few prospects of recovering its former glory? Through profiles of several Americans, from a factory worker to an Internet billionaire, Packer, staff writer for the New Yorker, offers a broad and compelling perspective on a nation in crisis. Packer focuses on the lives of a North Carolina evangelist, son of a tobacco farmer, pondering the new economy of the rural South; a Youngstown, Ohio, factory worker struggling to survive the decline of the manufacturing sector; a Washington lobbyist confronting the distance between his ideals and the realities of the nation’s capital; and a Silicon Valley entrepreneur pondering the role of e-commerce in a radically changing economy. Interspersed throughout are profiles of leading economic, political, and cultural figures, including Newt Gingrich, Colin Powell, Raymond Carver, Sam Walton, and Jay-Z. Also sprinkled throughout are alarming headlines, news bites, song lyrics, and slogans that capture the unsettling feeling that the nation and its people are adrift. Packer offers an illuminating, in-depth, sometimes frightening view of the complexities of decline and the enduring hope for recovery. --Vanessa Bush
Though The Unwinding is manifestly an homage to the U.S.A. trilogy of John Dos Passos, Packer attempts something far more ambitious and original. The book, an epic retelling of American history from 1978 to 2012, is a kind of fantasia--a set of variations on themes without the support of an overarching narrative. This is a brilliant and innovative book that transcends journalism to become literature. --Michael Lind
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Packer tells this story by presenting a series of compelling profiles of several individuals: among them a union worker in Youngstown, Ohio, a entrepreneur/bio-fuels evangelist in North Carolina, a D.C. insider, and a Silicon Valley innovator. These profiles follow the progression of their protagonist from the late 70's to the present day. Each story is independent, but all share a common thread: as the institutions that provided security to Americans following the New Deal and into the 70's started to fall apart, each person is forced to deal with their new found freedom. Some thrive, while others struggle to survive.
Interspersed in these longer narratives are shorter profiles of key players in the unwinding, from Newt Gingrich and Andrew Breitbart to Oprah Winfrey and Jay-Z. As he skips ahead in years, each new section is foreshadowed by a collage of words - snippets of movie and music quotes and headlines from newspapers - that Packer uses to expertly capture the mood of each year.
The genius of this book is that Packer doesn't tell you what to think. Instead, he presents indisputable facts by way of the stories of real people to show both sides of this "unwinding." At the end, you can draw your own conclusions. Packer is simply using his amazing powers of shaping narratives to capture this unique time of upheaval in America. It's easy to lose track of the drastic changes that have taken place over the last few decades unless you read a book like this, which captures the transformation of American institutions to American individualism. If you are liberal and mourn the loss of these institutions, Packer will force you to consider the opening of opportunities that came with these losses. If you're conservative and applaud the rise of the rugged individual, he will also make you recognize the price some people have paid due to the loss of security.
I would recommend this book to anyone that sees the change that has happened in the U.S. Although it is never stated, I think Packer is asking his readers a seemingly simple question: what does it mean to be an American, and what do we want this country to be? Is the price of freedom the loss of the common bonds that kept us all together, or is the overriding right to be free paramount to all else? I can guarantee that anyone who finishes this book will have a lot to think about and will have enjoyed reading these profiles.
This book is not giving us news, but it spreads out known facts in an impressionist way, providing a plausible picture. We learn about American lives during the last half century.
A chain store operator from a poor white Bible Belt background, who moves into renewable energies, and struggles. A black woman from the rust belt: factory worker, union member, single mother, community organizer. A political functionary who moves back and forth between actual politics and lobbying, never quite happy with either.
Several people with names, celebrities. A political master hypocrite, who gets caught with his lies. A miraculously successful be-esser in the media world. A drinking blue collar writer. A popular miser, who made America cheap. A gay libertarian Silicon Valley mogul and social philosopher. The world's greatest staff officer, who lost his integrity by deceiving his people. A fresh food pioneer turned sustainability evangelist. A Wall Street chieftain in the Clinton administration, who cashes in all the way to the crash, but is not responsible for anything that went wrong. A popular genius from Bed-Stuy with a celebrity wife and a criminal history. A rogue rightwing journalist, who dies young. A rogue left wing politician who dares to annoy banks.
We follow the demise of steel, the slump of cars and car parts, the explosive growth of the giant supermarket, the exuberance and the horror days of the financial sector, the jungle of the net, the irrationality of media and pop, the hurrah and crash of real estate, the relentless commercialization of politics, the destruction of the political center by ideology. The wonders of outsourcing, bankruptcies, 'turn-arounds', executive bonus payments, golden hand shakes, work force lay offs, the amazing career of crack, the Ponzi scheme called Florida, the foreclosures, the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street...
The book has been compared to John Dos Passos' monumental USA trilogy. Not so off, though Dos Passos wrote 'fiction' with facts and factoids. Packer writes 'non-fiction', though these labels are questionable. He outlines patterns of a changing society, and gives us details. He does not provide analysis, a recipe, a solution. The celebrity portraits don't go much beyond Wikipedia entries, as somebody complained. I don't see that as a real weakness though. They are pieces of a puzzle.
My favorite piece: the chapter on Rubin, with its scathing sarcasm on accountability. He condemns Obama's surrender to Wall Street. Equally obvious: the financial sector together with a corrupt political class has brought America down. Whatever or whoever raises it up again, that will not be the same who took it down.