The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer
This intimate history of the unravelling of the American Dream both fascinates and agitates
Faber and Faber
‘For most of the twentieth century in America, things worked about as well as they ever had in human history.” Who could disagree with this assessment, delivered by George Packer in his new book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America? Packer, a staff writer for the New Yorker, is best known as the author of The Assassin’s Gate, a widely praised study of the US’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Assassin’s Gate tells the story of a war gone awry; how a mix of hubris, incompetence and miscalculation conspired to turn a conflict that might have achieved some positive outcome into a fiasco.
The Unwinding is likewise a story of the US losing its way and of good things gone bad. By the middle of the last century, it arguably stood as the greatest and most benign nation the world had ever seen. A vigorous commitment to democratic institutions in support of a well-regulated market economy helped create a society of unimaginable wealth and productivity. Spared the domestic ravages of two world wars, Americans enjoyed a degree of material comfort unimaginable to people from an earlier age. Their teeth were strong, their life expectancy long, their cars big and their houses sturdy and affordable.
Then it all began to change. In Packer’s sober telling, “If you were born around 1960 or afterward, you have spent your adult life in the vertigo of [the] unwinding. You watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape.”
But The Unwinding is not your standard history of decline and fall; absent are the grand panoptic summaries of economic dislocation and social upheaval typical of hefty histories. Instead, Packer adopts a method at once intimate and kaleidoscopic. He notes his indebtedness to John Dos Passos’s USA, a great, if now generally neglected trilogy of novels from the 1930s that boldly sought to digest American life in a narrative collage of news clippings, song lyrics and story.
If Dos Passos fashioned fiction through a pastiche of historical chronicle, Packer creates history through a series of close character studies. A number of brief, sharp portraits focus on well-known personages, everyone from the writer Raymond Carver and the rap star turned media mogul Jay-Z, to Robert Rubin, Bill Clinton’s former treasury secretary. Too brief to stand on their own, these portraits function as interludes, set pieces that supplement the four life stories that form the heart of the book. In serial fashion, Packer introduces us to: Dean Price, a North Carolinian born into a tobacco-farming family, who spends his adult life trying to make it as an energy entrepreneur in the New South; Tammy Thomas, an African-American woman struggling to fashion a bearable, if not comfortable, life for her children in the de-industrialised Rustbelt; Jeff Connaughton, a Washington politico and lobbyist caught between the impulse to make a difference and make a killing; and Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who, emboldened by his first success with PayPal, parlayed a $500,000 investment in Facebook into a billion-dollar payday.