Book Review: The Unwinding

George Packer. The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, 2013.

It evades definition, this unwindingThrough the course of 430 pages, Packer never attempts to describe it. He doesn’t use data, or even introductions and conclusions. Instead, he offers you stories meant to take you to it, guide you around its contours, nudge you down its path (because yes, it is on a decline), and drop you at its ending, where you are left with the discomfiting sense that it isn’t over yet. 

George Packer is a seasoned journalist, and he knows how to tell a story. In this book, he tells sixteen of them. Three are extensive biographies of “normal” people, ten are short sketches of famous and successful American icons, and the remainder are portraits of places (Wall Street, Tampa, and Silicon Valley). His narration begins in 1978 and ends in 2012, a span of time Packer apparently associates with the unwinding. The tales seem to diverge astonishingly – what might Jay-Z and Newt Gingrich have in common? or a Washington insider and a destitute black woman from Youngstown? – but they all meet at the unwinding, an awfully precarious place for them to latch on to each other. The most tangible connection between them, the unspoken unwinding, is the growth of economic insecurity in America, in most cases linked to the development of complex financial markets.

Many more people in this book come out well from the unwinding than not. I don’t think it is Packer’s intent to advocate hyper speculation, real estate bubbles, abstruse financial instruments, deindustrialization, or superficial political discourse. I suspect that he hoped to show us the sharp contrasts between the superbly rich and everyone else. But it is somewhat odd that the stories of the people who successfully exploited workers, markets, and politics, predominate in these pages. The bias is a result of the inclusion of the celebrities, and even one of his “normal” people – Jeff Connaughton – spent decades blurring the lines between lobbying, politics, and finance, and came out as a millionaire with a book to his name (it is supposed to be enough that we understand Connaughton is in fact disillusioned and disheartened by his life as a Washington insider). But even as I question Packer’s choices, I admit that the celebrity stories are utterly enjoyable reads. Damn, it was like reading Us Weekly or People magazine for nerds – guilty pleasure.

The stories of ordinary folks still take up more pages than their famous counterparts. And they are compelling, because they are deeply human. Rich in emotion, narrated in a powerful but readable prose, they, most impressively, evince the inner demons, weaknesses, fears, strengths, and dreams of each individual. When Dean Price fails at his business, you are made uncomfortable from the shame. And when Tammy Thomas cuddles up with her drug-addicted mother (she hardly deserves that title), you want to hold her yourself instead.

Packer also makes you want to control the forces that steer their lives for the worse – but to your frustration, he lets you know you can’t. The unwinding is the product of a powerful combination of forces merged together so that sheer individual will cannot contend with it.