It is in the nature of things that they should rise and fall. The tide that laps against the coasts of the United States, from sea to shining sea, rises, falls. And so it is with empires, nations, peoples. “Complain not when you are cast down upon the wheel of fortune, for soon enough you will rise high upon the spokes,” as Boethius put it.
— A review of The Unwinding: Thirty Years of American Decline by George Packer —
In this startling, painful, beautiful, ugly, hopeless and hopeful collection of biographies, George Packer has managed to mould a sculpture of a nation at a crossroads, half turned like Klee’s The Angel of History, unsure whether to advance or retreat. This is a biography of an America with an uncertain future, and one suddenly unsure how to deal with a loss of confidence. (It is telling that the subtitle Thirty Years of American Decline was dropped for the American edition, replaced with An Inner History of the New America.)
One of the rules which govern the writing of biographies is that the writer should make the reader desire to know the subject personally. The Unwinding succeeds in this goal utterly and completely. The reader longs not only to meet the scores of people whose stories are told here, but also to meet the land itself, to traverse it and feel the grass of the country between one’s toes.
Packer’s prose is majestic, and at times hints at a culmination of two hundred years of American literary tradition, from Thoreau; through Emerson and Miller; Whitman and Frost and Dickinson; up to Roth and Auster.
The reader can feel the pen skating across the notebook, tone as perfectly pitched as a leading soprano, skating across the map of this monstrous country. The corn fields of the Carolinas; the filthy, noisy, exhilarating streets of Brooklyn’s brownstones; the wide open spaces of Alabama; the aching, burning calves of San Francisco, where every journey seems to be uphill, as though the city itself was constructed to make an Escher painting seem possible. All are made so vivid in this beautiful story.
It is a truism, and a long-running joke, that every journalist longs to write the “Great American Novel.” Packer has, paradoxically, achieved that goal by writing a piece of Great American Journalism.
This however, is a non-fiction novel in which the protagonists can decide for themselves how the story will end. Will America end in tragedy, farce, or a renewal? The people, collectively must decide.
Which America do we encounter here? This is a nation feared and loved in equal measure. The barbarous fools in far off lands who celebrated on September 11th 2001 would, to a man, be the first to clutch at green cards, had they emerged from the ashes of the flags they burned that day.
Packer doesn’t address the American Empire here, save for an inspired passage on Colin Powell’s fall from grace at the United Nations.
This is a story about empire, but an inland empire. A continent disguised as a country. And the subjects of that empire? The billionaires; the factory workers; the businessmen; the TV hosts; the writers; the politicians, and their lobbyists; the revered; the reviled; the rich and the poor. All are enjoined to create a nation based solely on an idea, “For every atom that belongs to me, as good belongs to you.”
Here laid bare is the paradox at the heart of America. A nation founded on the promise of liberty, but built by slaves. Promising opportunity, but harbouring inequality not seen since the times of kings and serfs. Where all men are created equal, but racism and xenophobia mean that some men really are more equal than others (to say nothing of women).
The characters chosen by the author are the perfect cast for this grand play. Within them they contain this inherent contradiction. Every sketch leaves the reader asking “Is this the real America?”
Is the real America, the land of Thomas Jefferson, or John Adams; of Thomas Paine, or Jefferson Davis; of Martin Luther King, or George Wallace; of FDR or Truman; Henry Wallace or Joseph McCarthy; Nixon or Carter; Sarah Palin or Bernie Sanders? The answer, like the nation itself, is a paradox: all of them, none of them.
Is this the America of Mr. Sam? Sam Walton, the penny pinching billionaire, who spawned the great beast of Wal-Mart which bounds across rural America, devouring the soul of every small town it lays its avaricious eyes upon. The America of the Wal-Mart “Do-nut towns,” whose hearts are ripped out by the superstore’s unfair advantage, is a dirty secret that few in America seems to have the stomach to discuss. Local tradesmen, whose stores have stood for generations, flounder and fail, their proprietors then offered their own job within a Wal-Mart store at a fraction of the pay, while their once vibrant main streets are boarded up, cast aside.
It is a great irony that the richest family in America has earned their wealth by utilizing the kind of planned, Stalinist economy that the American way is supposed to refute. This giant, inexorable corporatism lies at the heart of The Unwinding.
Or does America belong to Tammy Thomas, the factory worker who watches her neighbourhood unravel in to violence, drug wars, unemployment and despair? Thomas finds her own renewal, when she, at length, realizes that social conditions aren’t merely effects, but can have causes too, and people behind those causes. Through her unionizing, benevolence and pro-activism, America may yet find an answer to its problems.
Or to Dean Price, the frustrated would-be chain store mogul? Through his manifold reversals, Price experiences a Damascene conversion, and begins to preach a gospel of sustainability, locally farmed and owned. His bio-diesel dream is born of his nightmarish vision of a post-fossil fuel America. Crucially, Price does not fall into solipsism, but instead into innovation, the entrepreneurial American spirit adapting to new challenges.
The story of America turns out to be the story of aspiration. Longing for a better life, the struggle, the endless search for something better, the pursuit of happiness, drips from every page of The Unwinding. What happens to a dream deferred? A nation conceived as a bourgeois revolution has lost none of its impulse for social climbing in the intervening two centuries. And if the dream is deferred, rendered impossible? You do the best you can.
Packer presents America’s latest unwinding (for he reminds us that this thirty years of decline are not unique in American history) as a result of a dominant class forgetting their roots, and greasing the rungs of the American ladder so that none might follow their ascension to the mountaintop.
In his myriad mentions of the repeal of the Glass-Steagal act, which removed the shackles to Wall St. greed, and so brought the American people to the unwinding, like lambs to slaughter, Packer suggests that America’s problems are not insurmountable. Reagan’s repeal of the Fairness in Broadcasting Act, which unleashed the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Fox News upon the people, polarizing the opinions of a nation and making reconciliation near impossible, is treated to similar disdain.
But by pointing out that America has been unwound by politics, by man-made issues, Packer infers that these problems can be solved, perhaps through the efforts of people like Dean Price, Tammy Thomas, even Elizabeth Warren and Jeff Connaughton, who also find a niche in this story.
America weighs as heavily upon the rest of the world as it does upon itself. This is a fact that most of its citizens fail to understand.
The world is watching America, waiting. We watch breathless as this nation twists itself into madness, as its political class implodes, as its financial ineptitude explodes and send shock-waves around the world.
The revulsion and incredulity we feel when we see its mass-shootings, its warlike stance, its childlike tantrums; they say more about us than they do about America. For we all understand that if America fails, humanity might just follow. This is the root of our fascination.
A government for the people, of the people, by the people remains about the best idea that any of us have come up with to organize ourselves out of chaos. That this most noble of ideas has been repeatedly distorted, stolen, twisted, and unwound has not dimmed our enthusiasm for its beauty.
And so we stare at this car-crash of a nation: everyone thinks they know America. The Unwinding is that rare thing, a work of literary perfection that will take you as close to its subject as mere words allow.