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Another fine mess

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The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America - George Packer
There was a kind of competition to swallow American life whole--to mirror and distort in prose the social facts of a country that had a limitless capacity for flux and shock.

For a good stretch, I thought Packer was racing away from the pack, stealing the brass ring from all comers in the attempt to capture that mythical beast, "America." And even in closing, I'll continue to rave: the book is damn good, equal in so many ways to his ambitions.

The Unwinding weaves a number of threads through the historical and economic upheavals of the last 75 years. Packer focuses on a select set of individuals (a working-class mother in Youngstown, a Washington insider, a tech mogul, a truck-stop then green-fuel entrepreneur), teasing out how their rich, complicated lives evoke signal shifts in American culture: the shift from industrial production to the unethical play of capital; the disruptions of social institutions; the limits of political power (or will); the dramatic inequalities amplified by the aforementioned shifts. These portraits are compelling--these are fascinating individuals, and Packer displays a poet's ear for their language, a priest's ear for their confessions, a novelist's eye for the intersections of self and system, a counselor's compassion for the great difficulties some of them faced. It is rich, deep, powerful reporting -- no simplistic punditry, no reductive thesis-hammering. I have not read anything this attentive and attuned to the way people live since David Simon wrote about Baltimore (on the page and on the screen).

Packer's equally strong in his attention to Tampa, a city where the foreclosure storm hit perhaps hardest, where the devastation of the popped housing bubble was most visible. He still zeroes in on individuals (a Tea Party activist, a local journalist, an immigrant hotel owner, a displaced family), but his telling is more explicitly analytical, using the local excavations to map the larger-scale cratering of the economy.

Where he stumbles--where the book fumbles its ambitions, a little--is in the inter-woven bits of American pie: prose poems and a few more general portraits of Major American Figures. Echoing Dos Passos (who Packer explicitly acknowledges in an afterword), he creates a timeline with punctuated prose collages -- pulling from news and pop cultural sources a dense page of slogans, songs, events, lyrics that illustrate both when we are and who we are. Where in Dos Passos such polyglot play is like having your ear to the ground, hearing the whole rush of American culture in a flood of language and signs, Packer cherry-picks a bit: the message is more pointed, more purposeful, and more reductive. And then there are the chapters on big players: Gingrich, Powell, Jay-Z, Elizabeth Warren, Oprah. When I got to the acknowledgments page, I realized that where Packer had interviewed extensively for the rest of the book, these portraits are drawn from the published record. In other words, they're not so much reporting as book reports. No surprise, in retrospect: while often throwing a good punch, they seemed thinner, were far less complex or compassionate than the other portraits. We don't see people, here, we just see pieces of an argument. And they vary in quality -- a brutal take-down of Newt G and of Oprah, a sort of lifeless hash about Jay-Z and Robert Rubin. They provide a complement to the book's portraits that I think is structurally interesting but thematically over-ripe, ironically diffusing some of the force of the book's whole.

All told, the book is excellent -- sets explicit, ambitious goals (in the quote at the top, from the section on Raymond Carver) that Packer meets in so many ways with his attention to his core individuals and his corrosive insight into the cultural shifts on-going in America. Its few weaker elements water things down just a little, but it's still strong medicine--and a compelling, propulsive read.