The Unwinding is a rather classy addition to the thriving genre of American apocalypse porn. The basic thesis can be found online in Jim Kunstler’s The Clusterfuck Nation Manifesto, which runs to a few thousand words, but over hundreds of pages George Packer gives it the full literary treatment. He signals his ambition by taking as his model the USA trilogy of John Dos Passos, which spliced mash-ups of newspaper cuttings and pop lyrics, brief lives of public figures and longer episodic biographies of obscure ones, into an indignant portrait of America in the first three decades of the 20th century.
Packer’s book is non-fiction, and his ‘obscure Americans’ are real people — Tammy Thomas, a laid-off factory worker in the Midwest; Dean Price, a doomed entrepreneur in the rural South; Jeff Connaughton, a disappointed apparatchik in DC — but he has adapted Dos Passos’s method to portray the past 30 years, during which ‘the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip… gave way’, and the country was utterly changed. ‘If you were born around 1960 or afterward, you have spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding.’
And as Dos Passos was outraged by the Great Depression, Packer evinces — albeit indirectly, through the characters of his narrative — a similar anger at the Great Recession, at
a decadent kleptocracy in rapid decline, abetted by both political parties — America’s masses fed on processed poison bought with a food stamp swipe card, low-skill workers structurally unable to ever contribute again and too dumb to know their old jobs weren’t coming back, the banks in Gotham leeching the last drops of wealth out of the country, corporations unrestrained by any notion of national interest, the system of property law in shambles, the world drowning in debt.
Packer is a star reporter on the New Yorker, and is adept at unpicking intricate details, such as those linking the crooked owner of a tattoo parlour in Florida to Lehman Brothers in New York. He is at home in the centres of power, in Wall Street and Washington, and Silicon Valley, where autistic billionaires preside over weirdly anti-social social network companies, engineering change without progress: ‘We wanted flying cars; instead we got 140 characters.’
But he is at his best in unconsidered places in the Rust and Sun Belts: in
Youngstown, Ohio, which he compellingly presents as the archetype of such post-industrial cities as Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Detroit; and in Tampa, Florida, which is apparently the most stressful city in the United States, built on ‘universal credulousness and universal fear’, where in 2005, at the height of the property lunacy, a house sold for $399,600 on 29 December, and for $589,900 on 30 December.
The main characters — the obscure ones — are essentially losers, and their stories are severely depressing, particularly that of Dean Price in North Carolina, sitting on his porch with a glass of bourbon in the dark, listening to trucks on the highway carrying chickens pumped so full of hormones they cannot walk, destined to be fried and fed to Americans who will in turn become too fat to walk. Dos Passos and Steinbeck and O’Neill wrote about losers, but to do so these days feels almost unAmerican. Forty-seven per cent of Americans are now too poor to pay income tax, but the stories they want are all about the 1 per cent, or the 0.1 per cent: ‘Winning and losing are all-American games, and in the unwinding winners win bigger than ever, floating away like bloated dirigibles.’
But his short biographies of celebrities are equally depressing. Oprah Winfrey’s unimaginable self-willed success leaves her worshippers with no excuses. Sam Walton’s Wal-Mart has killed the soul of the small-town heartland. Newt Gingrich ended civil discourse in Washington. Colin Powell had his arm twisted to sell the Iraq war to the UN. When it began, the President declared that he was sleeping like a baby. ‘I’m sleeping like a baby, too,’ said Powell. ‘Every two hours, I wake up screaming.’
The Unwinding is a far from perfect book, but it is an honest and interesting one, and exhilarating as well as depressing, and not entirely hopeless. ‘There have been unwindings every generation or two,’ writes Packer. ‘Each decline brought renewal, each implosion released energy, out of each unwinding came a new cohesion.’