Book Check: "The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America"

Book: The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer

Rating Using Random Objects Related to the Book's Subject: Four out of Five Stock Ticker Symbols.

How Much Blame Would You Like to Place on Wall Street for the country's unwinding? Packer finds his main villain in Wall Street, though the book is far more nuanced than a simple jeremiad. Indeed, it can be downright riveting, angering and saddening, but in a good way, if you know what I mean.

A Brief Plot Synopsis: The book is told through the lives of six Americans from all different walks of life (e.g., a poor black woman from Youngstown, Ohio, a political operative turned Washington lobbyist) and certain places stand in as representative of the "unwinding" of America (Tampa, Florida, Silicon Valley, Wall Street). We see triumph and tragedy (mostly the latter) because America has ceased to work over the past few decades.

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Subtitle: An Inner History of the New America.

Better Subtitle: Unless you're in the Top .001 percent, we are all probably screwed (even you, Top 1 percenters).

Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: The Unwinding is bookended by the story of Dean Price, a failed entrepreneur whose father was a failed preacher (too much fire and brimstone), and indeed, his "character's" story gets more attention than the rest. The other characters (again, scare quotes, on which more below) are Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel (ever heard of PayPal?) who is a die-hard libertarian, Tammy Thomas, a black woman from Youngstown whose trials, tribulations, and eventual triumph is riveting and Jeff Cannaughton, an idealistic college kid who ends up working for Quinn & Gillespie -- one of the more prestigious K Street lobbying shops -- before giving it all up to write a tell-all book about Washington and lobbying.

Then there are those who make their celebrity cameos: Colin Powell, Jay-Z, Robert Rubin, Oprah Winfrey, Newt Gingrich and Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, among others.

Finally, geographic locations stand in as characters as well: Wall Street and Silicon Valley for obvious reasons, and Tampa, Florida represents the mortgage/foreclosure crisis that swept the nation and helped cause the Great Recession.

Packard uses these people to tell the story of what happened to American since Reagan was elected to office in 1980 (though with a number of characters' biographies Packard sketches, we find ourselves, at times, backing up against World War II).


"Critical" Analysis: As with many books, Packard could have used a more judicious editor -- the book clocks in at 430 pages and the "Dean Price" chapters run too long. At a certain point, and especially by the end, the reader is simply flummoxed as to what to do with Dean. Is he a crazy nut whose failed businesses are symptomatic of the if you just try hard enough and work hard enough your dreams will come true philosophy that seems to pervade the stories Republicans like to tell us (i.e., the largely mythical American Dream). The book ends with Dean's latest quasi-religious epiphany for how to finally it make in American (shades of Watch the Throne) -- an ambiguous note.

This is the only reason the book gets four stock tickers instead of five, because during the rest of the book, Packard pulls no punches. He is merciless on Gingrich and Rubin (deservedly so) and portrays fair, if not always flattering profiles, of Powell, Walton, Jay-Z and Andrew Breitbart. The town of Tampa comes across -- via the help of the St. Petersburg Times investigative reporter character -- as the underbelly of America where politicians, developers, real estate attorneys and mortgage brokers colluded to enrich themselves at the expense of home buyers.

And it is not surprising to learn that Packard has also written novels and a play. He writes from the point of view of omniscient narrator (think of the late, great David Halberstam) and does so in a way that the book can at times be mistaken for a novel. Had I the money, I would buy the movie rights to The Unwinding -- there is a good to great movie script lurking in these pages.

The book is profoundly sad -- I am not being hyperbolic. But this is why the book succeeds. Packard takes all the abstractions and statistics we've heard since the Great Recession -- the unemployment numbers, the millions of foreclosures, the lobbying money, the campaign money, the loss of union clout, the income inequality between those who scrape by at $8.50 per hour at Walmart with no benefits vs. the Masters of the Universe on Wall Street -- and using the journalist's gift for making those stories human and real. Tammy Thomas, born to a heroin-addicted mother, who manages to raise her three kids, get a college degree and become a community organizer is a triumph, while the story of the decline of the steel mills in Youngstown shows us what happens when we financialize our economy and stop "making stuff" (yes, I realize the economics of this are more complicated than that, but not by much). The other characters' stories -- save for Price -- are equally compelling and gut-wrenching.

By finding just the right touch of "real" people to combine with the celebrity bios, Packard hits an almost pitch perfect note to define the zeitgeist of America today and the not too distant past. Packard's book shows what good journalism is capable of; too bad more in the national media are more concerned about "building their personal brand" than making sure to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.

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