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The Unwinding

Is America coming undone? New Yorker writer George Packer describes a slow meltdown.

By Craig Fehrman / May 20, 2013

The Unwinding, by George Packer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 448 pp.

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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.

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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.)

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