“…a unique, irresistible contraption of a book” – The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer
Of late I have been avoiding long books. My heart sinks at the sight of their size – never mind their weight. Of course the e-book format rather artfully conceals these factors, but I am still doing most of my reading the old-fashioned way. (And as I write this, I cannot help thinking of my mother, who instilled in me a lifelong passion for the written word and who, were she alive, would find the locution ‘old fashioned book’ incomprehensible.)
This aversion to lengthy tomes is due to my desire to read so many books as soon as possible. Of late I’ve been reading several simultaneously, some in e-book format and others in hard copy. Can this become confusing? Indeed it can – and occasionally does. Am I reading more and enjoying it less? Well, no, I still love it – but I can’t deny that in recent years, my reading has taken on a somewhat manic aspect…
On the other hand, there are few experiences as rewarding as settling into a magisterial work of literature, one that quite literally transports you to another time, another place, another world. Most of the time, but not always, such books have considerable heft. They take some time to work their magic (and in some cases, it is a dark magic). Oh but is it ever time well spent!
I’m thinking, for example, of A Passion for Nature, Donald Worster’s biography of John Muir; Destiny of the Republic by Candace Millard; The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes; Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel; The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings; People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry; Nature’s Engraver, Jenny Uglow’s biography of Thomas Bewick; and Robert K. Massie’s biography of Catherine the Great. To this august company I now gladly add The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer.
The Unwinding is very much a book of the present moment and not the sort toward which I ordinarily gravitate. But as I read the reviews, I found myself thinking, I really want to read this. I felt drawn by the description of its contents. The Unwinding more than fulfilled its promise.
That said, this is a difficult book to describe. Packer’s crowded canvas includes portraits of the famous, the infamous, and everyday people. It’s that last group that is most compelling. It’s comprised of a wide variety of individuals, some pursuing their dreams, others just trying to keep their heads above water.
Dean Price of Rockingham County, North Carolina.
The plateau of hardwood hills and red clay fields between the Appalachian range and the Atlantic coastal plain is called the Piedmont. Along the order between Virginia and North Carolina, from Dansville and Martinsville down to Greensboro and Winston-Salem, the mainstays of Piedmont life in the twentieth century were tobacco, textiles, and furniture. In the last years of the century they all started to die, more or less simultaneously, as if a mysterious and highly communicable plague swept through the region.
Packer concludes this succinct, dystopian summary by telling us that “Dean Price returned home just as the first bad signs were showing up across the landscape.”
Then there’s Jeff Connaughton of Alabama. Connaughton wanted to contribute to the betterment of America through political engagement. A self-confessed “Biden guy,” Connaughton’s odyssey through the power corridors of Washington makes for very illuminating reading.
The more familiar names come from all walks of life: Newt Gingrich, Oprah Winfrey, Sam Walton, Colin Powell, master chef Alice Waters, rapper Jay-Z – the list goes on. The celebrity chapters are short but enlightening. This holds true especially for Peter Thiel. Packer chooses the German-born Thiel to represent the phenomenon of Silicon Valley. The chapter on him might have been entitled, “Inside the Mind of a 46-year-old Billionaire.” Not unexpectedly, one finds some unusual things in that mind.
As a poster child for the ravages of the housing bust, the city of Tampa rates several chapters of its own. Starting in the seventies, numerous residential developments had sprung up, most of them miles from any kind of commerce. As long as people continued to come in ever increasing numbers, building would continue at a rapid pace, facilitated by generous allowances and perquisites for developers courtesy of the city fathers. “A few local critics pointed out the strategy’s resemblance to a Ponzi scheme. But everything kept growing and no one paid attention.”
In the fullness of time, those Cassandra’s were proven all too prescient
Packer’s description of what was happening to the land during this period is straightforward and unflinching:
The growth machine cleared out the pine trees and palmettos and orange groves along State Road 54 up in Pasco County. It cut don the mangroves on Apollo Beach and asphalt over the strawberry farms around Plant City. Farther south down Interstate 75, in Lee County, the growth machine built a university on the wetlands near Fort Myers (Senator Connie Mack put in a call to the Army Corps of Engineers),and it sold quarter-acre lots on the installment plan between the drainage canals of Cape Coral. Farmers and ranchers cashed out and suddenly, where there had been orchards or pastures or swampland, developers put up instant communities–they were called ””boomburgs”–and christened them with names that evoked the ease of English manor life: Ashton Oaks, Saddle Ridge Estates, the Hammocks at Kingsway….
And on and on. Followed of course by the inevitable implosion. And with no way to reinvigorate the fragile and destroyed ecology of the place. (As one whose childhood was mostly spent in South Florida, I am tempted to say that in that part of the country, it was ever thus.)
For some folks, life was good in Tampa. This was especially true for certain four-star generals attached to MacDill Air force Base, home of the United States Central Command: “They enjoyed the lavish hospitality of Tampa society hostesses while shaping U.S. foreign policy and the fate of nations across the most volatile region of the globe, from Egypt to Pakistan, with all the authority of Roman proconsuls.” Four blocks from this hive of weighty activity lived Danny and Ronale Hartzell, their two kids, and Danny’s younger brother Dennis. All inhabited a ground floor apartment in a complex where drugs were regularly bought and sold. It was all in the way of living quarters they could afford. All three adults were willing to do any kind of work but had trouble finding and keeping jobs.
Of Danny Hartzell:
He was in his late thirties, short, with a pot belly on him, a wispy goatee, and a nearly hairless head under his Steelers cap. He was missing a bunch of teeth and spoke in a loud hoarse voice because of deafness in one ear. He classified himself as a “blue-collar-type guy,” not a “behind -the-counter-take-your-money-can-I-help-you-find-your-dress-size-type guy,” but the only jobs left were in retail and he lacked the right look and manner.
Danny took full responsibility (more so than necessary, I think) for the family’s problems, although he honestly questioned why “…all those people out there view me as such a bad person?”
Like her husband, Ronale had bad teeth and was overweight. The couple had numerous other difficulties, but these paled when, in the spring of 2009, they learned that their daughter Danielle was suffering from bone cancer in her left leg. Up to that time, the Hartzells had not owned a vehicle, but then a stranger gave them money to purchase a 2003 Chevy Cavalier so that they could drive to Danielle’s medical appointments. Here’s the upshot:
A prosthesis that would require regular four-millimeter adjustments as she grew was sewn inside the length of Danielle’s skinny little leg. she went a whole year cancer free. They thanked God. Otherwise, nothing changed for the Hartzells.
The summing up of the people, events, and experiences depicted in The Unwinding is presented through the eyes of Peter Thiel. In his view, 1973, the year of the oil shock, was when things began to go wrong:
A lot of institutions stopped working. Science and technology stopped progressing, the growth model broke down, government no longer worked as well as in the past, middle-class life started to fray. It was pretty much a roller coaster ride until the “seismic events” of 2008. “Four decade–down,up, up, down–After forty years, you were flat.”
Thiel calls those middle decades an Indian summer of sorts. They were characterized by “a series of bubbles: the bond bubble, the tech bubble, the stock bubble, the emerging markets bubble, the housing bubble….” And all of these went the way that all bubbles inevitably go, so that the one salient remaining fact to be discerned amid the wreckage was that “things were fundamentally not working.”
Thiel sees the information age as a disappointment in that it has failed to generate anywhere near enough jobs or to raise the standard of living across the board or to improve conditions for the populace in general – for people, in other words, like the Hartzells:
The creation of virtual worlds had taken the place of advances in the physical world.
In his blurb for The Unwinding, writer David M. Kennedy says the following:
George Packer has crafted a unique, irresistible contraption of a book. Not since John Dos Passos’s celebrated U.S.A. trilogy, which The Unwinding recollects and rivals, has a writer so cunningly plumbed the seething undercurrents of American life. The result is a sad but delicious jazz-tempo requiem for the post World War II American social contract. You will often laugh through your tears at these tails of lives of ever-less-quiet desperation in a land going ever-more-noisily berserk.
The Unwinding is a finalist for this year’s National Book Award in nonfiction. I hope it wins.