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The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America Paperback – March 4, 2014
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“[The Unwinding] hums―with sorrow, with outrage and with compassion...Packer's gifts are Steinbeckian in the best sense of that term...[Packer has] written something close to a nonfiction masterpiece.”―Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“Gripping...deeply affecting...beautifully reported.”―David Brooks, The New York Times Book Review
“Remarkable.” ―Joe Klein, Time
“Packer's dark rendering of the state of the nation feels pained but true. He offers no false hopes, no Hollywood endings, but he finds power in...the dignity and heart of a people.”―The Washington Post
“[The Unwinding] has many of the qualities of an epic novel...[a] professional work of journalism that also happens to be more intimate and textured―and certainly more ambitious―than most contemporary works of U.S. fiction dare to be...What distinguishes The Unwinding is the fullness of Packer's portraits, his willingness to show his subjects' human desires and foibles, and to give each of his subjects a fully throated voice.”―Héctor Tobar, The Los Angeles Times
“A monumental work that is both intimate and sweeping...Packer's writing dazzles...[his] reporting excels...The cumulative effect is extraordinary.”―Ken Armstrong, The Seattle Times
“Brilliant. Harrowing. Gorgeously written...The Unwinding is a lyrical requiem for a lost time, for downsized dreams and surrendered hopes. It's beautiful...but also...heartbreaking, a lush work of art that hurts all the more for being about the loss of hope and promise in America.”―The Daily Kos
“This is a work not just of fact, but of wit, irony, and astounding imagination.”―The Paris Review
“A work of prodigious, highly original reporting...[Packer] demonstrates that the future of reporting out in world isn't in eclipse...Packer's arduous venture commands attention.”―Joseph Lelyveld, The New York Review of Books
“Wide ranging, deeply reported, historically grounded and ideologically restrained...Instead of compelling us to engage with his theory of the past 35 years of the American experience, Packer invites us to explore the experience itself, as lived by our fellow citizens. They're human beings, not evidence for an agenda or fodder for talking points. Understanding that is the first step toward reclaiming the nation we share with them.”―Laura Miller, Salon
“[Packer is] among the best non-fiction writers in America...[he] weaves an unforgettable tapestry...In its sensibility, The Unwinding is closer to a novel than a work of non-fiction. It is all the more powerful for it.”―Edward Luce, The Financial Times
“Fascinating...elegant...A richly complex narrative brew.”―The Chicago Tribune
“[An] awe-inspiring X-Ray of the modern American soul.”―The Millions
“A brilliant and innovative book that transcends journalism to become literature.”―Bookforum
“[S]uperbly written and consistently thought-provoking...The Unwinding is long-form journalism at its best.”―Dallas News
“Masterful...thoughtful, thorough, and persuasive...the payoff comes when Packer's various elements combine in powerful and startling ways...What will stay with you...are the book's people, people Packer never turns into ideological mascots, people who struggle to survive, to create, to improve, even as the systems of support erode around them.”―The Christian Science Monitor
“Packer writes...beautifully and precisely; respectfully and, when warranted, critically. There is a straightforward and generous humanity in his prose.”―Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast
“Packer's strength as a storyteller lies in his ability to marshal a diverse range of voices from across the class divide, in a nation deeply divided by social status.”―NPR Books
“Packer's is an American voice of exceptional clarity and humanity in a tradition of reportage that renders the quotidian extraordinary. When our descendants survey the ruins of this modern imperium and sift its cultural detritus, American voices like this will be the tiny treasures that endure.”―The Independent (UK)
“This angry, wise and moving state-of-the-union address is too subtle and clever to be prescriptive. Packer offers no simplistic solutions. But here's the thing. The writing in this fine work showcases the very same qualities of democratic generosity and fair-mindedness whose supposed disappearance in America its author most laments.”―The Telegraph (UK)
“Exemplary journalism...A foundational document in the literature of the end of America.”―Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“A broad and compelling perspective on a nation in crisis...an illuminating, in-depth, sometimes frightening view of the complexities of decline and the enduring hope of recovery.”―Booklist (starred review)
“Trenchant...[the] brief biographies of seminal figures that shaped the current state of affairs offer the book's fiercest prose, such as in Packer's brutal takedown of Robert Rubin, secretary of the Treasury during some key 1990s financial deregulation that amplified the severity of the Great Recession of 2008. Packer has a keen eye for the big story in the small moment, writing about our fraying social fabric with talent that matches his dismay.”―Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“The Unwinding...echoes the symphonic rage of the celebrated television series The Wire...a tremendous work of reporting that pushes past abstractions and recycled debates...Whatever one's views on American decline generally, it is difficult to put the book down without...a conviction that we can do better.”―The Washington Monthly
“[A] sprawling, trenchant narrative...Packer is a thorough, insightful journalist, and his in-depth profiles provide a window into American life as a whole...The Unwinding is a harrowing and bracing panoramic look at American society--things are bad everywhere, for everyone, but there's still a sense of optimism. Through hard work and dedication we can pull ourselves out of the financial, political, and social mess we've created and become stronger as individuals and ultimately as a society.”―The Brooklyn Rail
“George Packer has crafted a unique, irresistible contraption of a book. Not since John Dos Passos's celebrated U.S.A. trilogy, which The Unwinding recollects and rivals, has a writer so cunningly plumbed the seething undercurrents of American life. The result is a sad but delicious jazz-tempo requiem for the post-World War II American social contract. You will often laugh through your tears at these tales of lives of ever-less-quiet desperation in a land going ever-more-noisily berserk.”―David M. Kennedy, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Freedom from Fear and Over Here
“The Unwinding is the extraordinary story of what's happened to our country over the past thirty years. George Packer gives us an intimate look into American lives that have been transformed by the dissolution of all the things that used to hold us together. The result is an epic―wondrous, bracing, and true―that will stand as the defining book of our time.”―Dexter Filkins, author of The Forever War
“The Unwinding presents a big, gorgeous, sad, utterly absorbing panorama of the relentless breakdown of the American social compact over a generation. George Packer communicates the scope and the human experience of the enormous change that is his subject better than any writer has so far.”―Nicholas Lemann, author of Redemption and The Promised Land
“Original, incisive, courageous, and essential. One of the best works of nonfiction I've read in years.”―Katherine Boo, National Book Award–winning author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers
“George Packer serves us the history of our own life and times in a magisterial look at the America we lost.”―Lawrence Wright, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Looming Tower and Going Clear
“The hearts and lives broken in this second great depression have now found their eloquent voice and fierce champion in George Packer. The Unwinding is an American tragedy and a literary triumph.”―David Frum, author of Comeback and Why Romney Lost
“As with George Orwell's, each of George Packer's sentences carries a pulse of moral force. The Unwinding is a sweeping and powerful book that everyone should read.”―David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z
About the Author
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It's an unwinding that’s been going on for a long time. We have seen it every day in our drive to and from work, to and from school. We have seen it in our papers and on our TV screens. We have lived it. And we have become used to it. We stopped noticing. What George Packer does is force us to pay attention once again.
He shows us the factories closing, the Wal-Marts and the parking lots taking over, the suburbs where no-one ever meets anyone else. The awful aloneness of living in poverty. He tells the story through the eyes of a biodiesel entrepreneur, a Joe Biden staffer and lobbyist, a factory worker turned community organizer. He tells us stories about the founders of the Tea Party and the founders of Occupy Wall Street. He talks about Peter Thiel and Elizabeth Warren and Newt Gingrich.
But most of all he talks about America. About an America where people used to meet each other but don’t anymore, an America where people used to be able to count on schools and roads and hospitals and the government and a job. And how that America slowly disappeared, leaving us poor and alone. Leaving houses that need to be torn down and crumbling roads. Leaving crumbling people.
Except—and this is the amazing thing--the people in these pages don’t crumble. They are sustained by many different things: love of family, religion, a dream but somehow they keep going. This was a very hard book to read because it forced me to see what I look at every day. But in the end, it was worth it because the last sentences of the book are “He still had a dream of building a big white house and filling it with children. He would get the land back.”
In the midst of so much despair and unwinding, it is good (even if painful) to read about people like that.
Tammy Thomas is a Black woman in Youngstown, Ohio, born at the apex of Black inner-city success, when well-paying blue-collar jobs in steel factories had been a fact for a generation; during her lifetime Youngstown collapses due to jobs moving to lower-pay locations, the short-sightedness of local elites, and the indifference of far-away capital that dismembers its industry. She manages to navigate it all, living factory life and eventually becoming a activist against the forces that ravaged her home city. Jeff Connaughton goes through the politics-lobbying-politics revolving door, wavering between his desire to change the world and the desire to get American-dream wealthy. Dean Price is an energetic, self-help-book reading entrepreneur, trying to succeed in the businesses of truck stops. He succeeds at first as an outpost of big oil companies and fast-food franchises, but finds that it is very, very hard to succeed when he tries to convert it to a biodiesel business that keeps its profits in the community. The city of Tampa is a recurrent theme, showing ground-zero of the housing crisis; the Hartzell family stands out: because they are living on minimum wage working at Wal-Mart, they can only afford to shop at Wal-Mart. All of these are based on first-person interviews, and I was very aware that I was reading something written by a journalist: the stories are detailed, vivid, and Packer really lets you inhabit the lives of the people he is writing about.
Scattered throughout there are biographies of well-known figures. Although there were more, the collection that stood out for me were Sam Walton, Oprah, Jay-Z, and Alice Waters. These characters are self-made millionaires, American Dream success stories. Also among these is Peter Thiel, a PayPal founder, venture capitalist, well-known for his libertarian and pro-Trump political stances; he differs in that Packer actually interviewed him and Thiel shows up in several "Silicon Valley" chapters.
These chapters on self-made American elites show the startling contrast between the haves and the have-nots. The individuals are not caricatures, but fully understandable as humans. They demonstrate that each of them, after they hit the stratosphere culturally and commercially, becomes separated from ordinary Americans and fully immersed in the sense of being self-made royalty, beholden to no one. They stand in stark contrast to the chapters about ordinary Americans. You've got Tammy Thomas in one chapter, a single mother trying to raise a child on $7.30 and hour at a factory in Youngstown, and then you've got Oprah in the next chapter saying "A black person has to ask herself, 'If Oprah Winfrey can make it, what does it say about me?' They no longer have any excuse." Alice Waters did change the way Americans think about food, but it is hard to imagine Tammy Thomas shopping organic. Sam Walton just wanted to open some big stores, and was always modest and homely even as he suppresses unions and turns main streets into economic wastelands. These self-made elites at least approximately seem to have their heart in the right place and just seems like she hasn't thought through the values of the system in which they have succeeded; if they have cognitive dissonance between their success and the failure of others, they suppress it well.
Thiel, though, does seem to have thought these values through that are only implicit in the behavior of the other elites. He comes across almost like a malignant Vulcan: with contempt for other humans, except those that are as successful as he is, or that he feels will be as successful as he (and even then, perhaps only as a good investment). He feels like technology will create a utopia, if only welfare beneficiaries and women didn't muck it up by voting for people that don't really understand capitalism. It is not really clear, though, how that would affect the lives of Tammy Thomas, or Wal-Mart employees like the Hartzell family. It would be a utopia . . . for people as competent as Peter Thiel.
Packer's brilliance is that he clearly has a bias, but it is subtle, a slope that shows up in the quotes he chooses and the intersections of the characters. The top Amazon review for this book starts off with "First off, this is not a polemical book with Packer trying to thrust his viewpoint down your throat. Packer's own voice is largely absent from this book. Instead, he lets his characters speak for themselves." That's sort of true, but the juxtapositions of the elite and working-class characters, the successes and the failures, the small fry getting squashed and the elites clinking glasses in catered parties, tell a story of extreme class separation loud and clear. At one point Packer quotes Tom Perriello, then a Congressman from Virginia, saying "Empires decline when elites become irresponsible." It's a passing quote by a passing character, but when I came across it 70% of the way through the book, it stuck with me as Packer's implicit but central thesis of this book.
Through biographies of a few Americans he proves the downside of this thesis. The "stories" run from 1978 to 2012 covering the mortgage crisis, the decline of manufacturing, and money in politics. He believes that the unwinding is a natural occurrence and has happened before. It signifies a decline in trust and belief in traditional institutions that Packer believes underpinned 'the American contract'. This void has now been filled solely by money. It is easy to see Trump's success in this theory.
On a positive note, the theory continues by suggesting good things come out of these unwindings. They eventually bring new energy and cohesion. The downside is they grant greater individual freedom. That freedom makes people more untethered because institutions are in flux. In this flux Packer says the winners win bigger and the losers fall farther.
For the sake of America let's hope the unwinding leads rapidly to cohesion.
Top international reviews
Written through the eyes of half a dozen characters the 'Unwinding' really does get to the heart of the decline of a once great nation - lessons for us in the UK as well.
Beyond this, it is a fantastic read, obviously based on a huge amount of research and work, looking into the stories, souls and motivations of ordinary and famous Americans, side by side.
I've lived in the US, been married to an American, and even built and taken a company public there, but realise how little I knew or understood about the country before reading this extraordinary book.