Book Review — The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

On Monday, September 19, 1977, Lykes Corporation of New Orleans announced that, by the end of the week, it would close Campbell Works, the largest mill in the blue collar Ohio city of Youngstown. That day, which became known locally as ‘Black Monday’, was the latest in a long line of body blows for a once prosperous city.

By the late 1980s, Youngstown, with a population of less than 100,000, was among the top ten cities in the United States for homicide. It led the country in the murder of black women under 65.

Youngstown’s story epitomises what New Yorker writer George Packer calls ‘the unwinding’: a historical epoch in which old political, social and economic models break down, where ‘everything changes and nothing lasts’.unwinding

Crisis, as the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci noted, ‘consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.’ Packer’s is a reporter’s journey into this material and existential crisis as it unfurls across the US, from the derelict lots of Youngstown, Ohio to the foreclosed dream homes in the sun in Tampa, Florida, via the Ayn Rand acolytes in Silicon Valley and the corridors of power on Washington and Wall Street.

Packer has been consistently among the world’s top non-fiction writers and ‘the Unwinding’ is his tour de force, uncoiling over 400-plus pages to reveal the inner workings of modern America through the stories of three very different characters. Dean Price grew up in Rockingham County, North Carolina, where everyone ‘had Scotch-Irish names that fit neatly on a tombstone’. The son of a racist tobacco farmer, Dean has an epiphany in the wake of Hurricane Katrina – oil will run out, eventually. His life becomes a battle to convince skeptical Piedmont Republicans of the virtues of alternative energy and small-scale, local industry.

Dean loses everything – his house, his family (more than once), his business – but never his optimism. ‘[T]o me this is the greatest economic explosion that’s ever going to hit in our lifetimes, because all the money that’s being concentrated at the top, with food, fuel, clothing – what else do they control? banking – it might go back to little towns. I can see that happening.’

Occupy Wall Street appears late in the book – in a expertly weaved chapter about the disappointments of life in corporate banking and, ultimately, in the encampment at Zuccotti Park – but the protestors’ ‘We are the 99 per cent’ mantra provides the Unwinding’s unspoken leitmotif. The closest any of Packer’s central characters get to the omnipotent top percentile is in the form of Jeff Connaughton.

As a 19 year-old at the University of Alabama, Connaughton is inspired by a speech from a young Delaware Senator named Joe Biden. After law school, Connaughton – who describes himself as ‘the perfect number two’ guy – slowly begins to immerse himself in Washington: working on Biden’s ill-fated 1988 and 2008 presidential campaigns (with little thanks from the current vice-president); enriching himself as a lobbyist; eventually winding up as a senatorial aide opposing Obama’s appointment of the same Wall Street scions who had overseen the crash to clean up the mess. Jaded, Connaughton quits DC and moves to Savannah, Georgia where he spends his days writing about his time in Washington. The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins was published last year.

Finally there is Tammy Thomas, a pugnacious Youngstown African-American who overcomes a heroin-addicted mother and a teenage pregnancy to secure a “job for life” in the factory. She raises her kids drug-free in a city choked by crack. She loses her job when the factory was asset-stripped, and is defrauded of most of $48,000 savings. But she remains indefatigable: building a new life for herself, and her neighbors, as a community organizer.

Subtly, yet relentlessly, Packer constructs his individual characters, and through them the character of his homeland. Here real incomes have not risen since the 1970s.  ‘As wages stayed flat, debt kept more and more families afloat’.

This new America needed new idols, too, and Packer supplements his character’s stories with pen portraits of Sam Walton, Jay-Z, and others. Most effective is the opening pair, Newt Gingrich – the New Right doyen who was among the first politicians to understand ‘the new rules of celebrity’ – and Oprah Winfrey.

Oprah’s motto (‘Go, girl. Go for it.) was an open invitation to her millions of viewers. And if they don’t manage to emulate her success? “[S]ince there was no random suffering in life, Oprah left them with no excuse.’

The Unwinding is a fascinating journey through an America that has largely remained hidden from a view. There are echoes of Don DeLillo’s Underworld in the scope of Packer’s vision and his deft eye for language and detail. There is a lugubriousness to this book, too, despite early protestations that ‘the unwinding brings freedom’.

It is not “Morning in America” any longer; the question now is whether the gloom is a precursor to a new dawn, or a long dark night.

This review originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post.