When the norms that made the old institutions useful began to unwind, and the leaders abandoned their posts, the Roosevelt Republic that had reigned for almost half a century came undone. The void was filled by the default force in American life, organized money.
In the unwinding, everything changes and nothing lasts, except for the voices, American voices, open, sentimental, angry, matter-of-fact; inflected with borrowed ideas, God, TV, and the dimly remembered past.
I was rather looking forward to reading this. I’d not read anything by Packer, a staff writer for the New Yorker, prior to this so didn’t quite know what I was getting into. And then actually starting to read I found myself a bit lost – had to go back to those sentences in the prologue
There are mimi-biographies of various people and what they were doing in several time periods between 1978 and 2012. Some of the subjects are poor, some very rich and or powerful, a few middle class. Of the main subjects, “Dean” is an entrepreneur from North Carolina, “Tammy” is a black political organizer from Youngstown, OH , and “Jeff” is in politics from Alabama and then Washington. There are others – a banking insider, a couple of Silicon Valley brains, a poverty-level family and a newspaper man from Tampa. And there are little chapters devoted to the likes of Newt Gingrich, Oprah Winfrey, Sam Walton, Colin Powell, Elizabeth Warren, Robert Rubin, Alice Waters, Raymond Carter and Jay-Z. In addition there are some kind of “area” reports – based on the people and situation of Silicon Valley or Tampa Florida which seem representative of the era. These usually include the tales and ideas of several different individuals.
The stories are apparently connected only because the personalities have relevant and personal stories about living through what Packer calls an “unwinding” of America – the time when the banks were deregulated and the housing market collapsed in scandal leading to a serious recession and with virtually no one going to jail. I can only think he means the moral foundations of the country all fell to the power of the dollar.
It’s a long book – 437 pages with 430 of narrative giving no “big picture” or guiding narrative. That said, you can feel Packer’s textured liberal ideals and opinions in the telling.
The book is broken into three generally chronological Parts, Part 1 is 1978 through 2003, Part 2 is 2008, and Part 3 is 2010 through 2012 – there is some overlap. Each part has a short section comprised of headlines or slogans of the era. The chapters within the Parts are basically the stories of the subjects, gleaned and told in a variety of ways. In some ways The Unwinding reminds me quite a lot of Hard Times by Studs Terkle, but where the Terkle book was almost entirely an oral history of the Great Depression, thematically organized and told by many individuals, The Unwinding is a mixed bag based on interviews and research with some authorial opinion and attitudes thrown in. The “Note on Sources” is good – mostly interview information
The writing is generally smooth, clear, moderately fast paced. The reader cares and wants to know what happens to Tammy, Jeff, Dean or the others. The Tampa sections were fascinating and I have a fondness for reading about (there are much better books around on the housing crash – try Boomerang) and the tech-boom. Sometimes The Unwinding reads like something from the “true crime” genre:
Van Sickler believed that there were two kinds of journalists— the ones who told stories, and the ones who uncovered wrongdoing. He was definitely the latter. But the only person he ever took down was Sonny Kim. In the spring of 2006, Van Sickler began to hear about a man named Kenny Rushing. (p. 199)
Overall I really enjoyed the book – the information, as well as the style and structure.
From Huffington Post:
The inward-looking force in his portraits of individual Americans in his book The Unwinding is strong enough to unsettle and even crack the thick crust of conformity to the “new normal” into which most of us have been baked, half-consciously, since around 1980.
From the NY Times:
To repeat, Packer does an outstanding job with these stories. “The Unwinding” offers vivid snapshots of people who have experienced a loss of faith. As a way of understanding contemporary America, these examples are tantalizing. But they are also frustrating. The book is supposed to have social, economic and political implications, but there is no actual sociology, economics or political analysis in it.