How does a writer tell the story of America since the meltdown? No, not just since the meltdown, but since the unraveling first started, really—since deindustrialization, 50 percent divorce rates, the culture wars, the red-blue split, the era of the Wall Streeter or athlete worth more than some countries; since the evanescence, through these means and countless others, of the old common civic culture?
It’s a big job, and a dangerous one. If the writer’s intent is lamentation for the purpose of awakening his countrymen to the moral precipice on whose edge society teeters, the work product can turn mawkish and sentimental in a hurry. And even sympathetic readers can be forgiven for feeling they’ve heard this before. The writer of such a chronicle sets a very high bar for himself. What separates a work of true moral seriousness from, say, a lachrymose TV news magazine feature about a community’s devastation when the plant pulled up stakes?
George Packer, the New Yorker writer who’s written powerful nonfiction books about the Iraq war and the tribulations of modern liberalism as well as two novels, mostly surpasses that bar in The Unwinding, and sometimes does so magnificently. The unwinding of his title is the dissolution of those old civic bonds, and the steady work and ticket to middle-class security they provided for two or three post-war generations of Americans. The unwound, so to speak, are some citizens he found and spent time with, people from a range of backgrounds and regions who symbolize this American nightmare.
They occupy somewhat different rungs on the socioeconomic ladder, but collectively Packer’s subjects live lives that show us an America that is too often hidden from view. The most gripping story to me was that of the Hartzells, an African-American family of four (plus father Danny’s brother) living a mean and hideous week-to-week existence in Tampa, bouncing around from apartments with child abusers (or at least, neglecters) next door to trailers where “the A/C didn’t work, but the kids were afraid of the stinging velvet ants, so they stayed inside the stifling trailer day and night.” Their story is made all the more compelling by the fact that Packer doesn’t paint them in a wholly sympathetic light, as victims of predatory capitalism. Danny and his wife, Ronale, make dumb, short-term decisions—a flight to Georgia for a fresh start that was obviously going to end in disaster, for example.
Packer’s characters, like all humans closely examined, are complicated and flawed people—victims of both larger social and political forces and their own mistakes. Tammy Thomas of Youngstown, poor, gutted Youngstown, had three children too young, trying to escape a heroin addict of a mother who took little-girl Tammy with her to methadone clinics, when she didn’t simply abandon her. Tammy was a mess. But one day her father said to her, “You’re never going to be anything but a welfare bitch,” and she resolved then that she would at least finish high school. She still wound up on welfare, for a while, but she looked hard and found an assembly-line job making GM parts at a time when those jobs were disappearing fast.
The central character is Dean Price, a North Carolina man from a tobacco family with a father who was the hardest of hard-shell preachers, getting booted from church after church for his unremitting piety. Dean tried a little of this and a little of that before deciding he could make his pile in the green economy. One can see why he interests Packer the most. He is a category defier of extreme proportions: a Southern, white, religious, male Obama voter. He even met Obama briefly; thought the government was going to help him get flush. The book ends with him, having burned through business partners, working with a young man as they drive around to restaurants, collect their cooking grease, and convert it into fuel for the county’s schools.
Packer writes about these people and their milieus beautifully and precisely; respectfully and, when warranted, critically. There is a straightforward and generous humanity in his prose, and he doesn’t sacrifice his subjects on the altar of any literary pretensions, a habit one often finds on display in such works. The casual reader who doesn’t bother to think about how a book she or he reads is actually put together will probably never even ponder this, but Packer clearly worked very hard to gain the trust of his subjects. He had to have spent many hours with each of them, listening endlessly to their complaints, sifting truth from the fictions they told themselves. And so among its other, more important accomplishments, The Unwinding is a lesson for aspiring writers in how to go about doing the painstaking work of developing relationships of trust with subjects and how to convey their life stories with critical compassion.
Packer saved the literary aspirations for other aspects of the book, and those work less well. The Unwinding consciously mimics John Dos Passos’s USA Trilogy, the three novels he published between 1930 and 1936. Dos Passos interweaved the stories of his more proletarian subjects with biographies of some well-known Americans. Packer does the same here, mixing in short profiles of figures from Newt Gingrich to Elizabeth Warren to PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who comes across as an utter monster, with his desire to live to about age 180 (I’m not joking) and his contempt for people not motivated by money. Packer also borrows Dos Passos’s device of interposing, every 50 or 80 pages, selected newspaper and magazine headlines of momentous events of the era.
These elements don’t add that much to The Unwinding. Packer’s intention with these portraits is uncertain. It can’t help but feel as if there is a kind of randomness to his selection of characters, and he makes less effort than he might have in the writing to justify why he chose this person and not that one. Dos Passos’s technique was original in his time but is less so in ours.
There’s another difference, which is perhaps more instructive. In the 1930s, Dos Passos wasn’t yet the right-winger he became in the 1950s, but he was becoming a curmudgeonly ex-leftist with a broad libertarian streak who opposed big business and big government. Packer has more heart than that. In this sense he may have limited himself a bit by hewing quite so closely to a template that slightly disserves what I take to be his goal in writing this book. That goal is to tell us that our civic culture has been ravaged from the top down, and the ravaging has ensnared millions of imperfect but hard-working people. The Unwinding communicates that with passion and authority. I hope the people who need to read this book do so.