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The Unwinding

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

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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. 

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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.

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