The first thing to note about The Unwinding, George Packer’s masterful new book, is its title. He’s selected an ambitious subject: how, over the last few decades, and all across America, our norms, practices, and communities have come undone. It’s never surprising when Packer, a staff writer at The New Yorker, arrives at a cranky conclusion. (He once used his magazine’s website to tell Twitter to “stop.”) But Packer’s crankiness is also thoughtful, thorough, and persuasive. Think of all the destructive, marketing-friendly metaphors he might have chosen for his title – maybe, say, a “cliff.” Instead, Packer opted for something more subtle and insidious. Whatever bound America together, he argues, has slowly been unwound.
Packer advances this argument by telling stories. “The Unwinding” features four main characters: Dean Price, a small business owner in rural North Carolina; Tammy Thomas, a factory worker in Youngstown, Ohio; Jeff Connaughton, a lobbyist in Washington; and Peter Thiel, a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley. In rotating chapters, he narrates their lives from the 1970s up to today.
Perhaps the best part of “The Unwinding” is the way these chapters inhabit and animate each character’s perspective. When Dean Price graduates from high school in 1981, he faces three options: work at the furniture or textile factories; work at the cigarette factory, which adds in benefits and two free cartons a week; or head off to college. Packer describes this choice in terms of report cards, with the C and D students going into textiles and the B students into tobacco. “The A students,” he writes, “three in his class, went to college." It’s a simple moment, but also one that immerses you in Dean’s world, and Packer excels at these touches.
Still, every few chapters Packer will set his characters aside and consider the big picture. Here he borrows from a surprising model: John Dos Passos’s "U.S.A." trilogy. While Dos Passos’s novels were widely read in the 1930s, in today’s literary geography they’re more Youngstown than Silicon Valley. But Packer resurrects Dos Passos’s unique structure – not just the rotating perspectives but also the “Newsreel” sections, which consist of fragments from pop songs, TV shows, and newspaper clippings, and the short polemical biographies of politicians and celebrities. (Packer skips Dos Passos’s “Camera Eye” sections, and wisely so, since no one’s ever figured out what the novelist was up to.)
These shorter sections don’t always work. The Newsreels, which seem so fresh in Dos Passos’s books, feel dull in Packer’s, mostly because technologies like Twitter now atomize pop culture in real time. (Sorry, George!) But the payoff comes when Packer’s various elements combine in powerful and startling ways. After we watch Price fall for Reagan in the early 1980s, we move to Packer’s incisive take on Newt Gingrich, a Reagan evangelist in “the modern, middle-class South of the space program and the gated community." Then we meet Jeff Connaughton, whose parents belong to that new South. One of these men becomes a political apostate, one a Biden Democrat, one a Newt Gingrich, but their intertwined narratives show how much they share. In Packer’s hands, isolated lives connect and ricochet until they become parts of a larger, and bleaker, history.
In this fashion, “The Unwinding” moves forward through time, introducing new characters (Tampa’s Tea Party) and new events (the housing crisis), always with Packer’s just-right details and always through the patient telling of stories. One downside to this method is that it doesn’t offer many causes or solutions. (The closest Packer comes is during Connaughton’s sections, when he diagnoses “the default force in American life, organized money.")
But “The Unwinding” offers something far more rare: a political journalist working hard to confront both parties’ pieties, to dig deep into their ideas, and to synthesize the results in a way that’s fun to read. When it comes to the things that are prying America apart, very few journalists fret equally about culture and economics. But Packer does. He sketches our rising inequality through Silicon Valley, a place where the average house once cost $125,000 but, by the late 1990s, went for $776,000. Yet he also reminds us that income is never the only cause, or cure. After Price builds a mini-empire of truck stops, he tires of employees stealing from him and failing drug tests. So he raises his wages to a more livable $12 an hour, only to watch the new hires steal and do drugs, too.
A few years ago, in The New Yorker, Packer claimed that Dos Passos’s "U.S.A." trilogy was highly underrated. (He’s right about that, too.) The novels, Packer wrote, revealed “an alternative, submerged history of the first three decades of the American century.” “The Unwinding” does the same for the last few decades. What will stay with you, however, 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.
Craig Fehrman is a Monitor contributor.