George Packer's new nonfiction book, "The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America," has many of the qualities of an epic novel.
Packer's subject is the last 35 years of U.S. history, the decades that gave us the conservative "Contract With America," an Internet boom and bust, two wars in Iraq and a Great Recession. They were the best of times, and they were worst of times, and in Packer's able telling it's as if Dickens himself were taking a first crack at fitting all that history into a book.
Packer, a staff writer at the New Yorker, begins with a series of newsreel headlines in the fateful year of 1978 and follows the stories of several Americans to the present. It's a book about all sorts of people, rich and poor, getting caught up in a constant storm of economic upheaval and social revolution. Everything around them is changing, and much that's dear to them is being destroyed. Packer tells their stories in a thoroughly professional work of journalism that also happens to be more intimate and textured — and certainly more ambitious — than most contemporary works of U.S. fiction dare to be.
"His mind filled with visions of a decadent kleptocracy in rapid decline," Packer writes, describing the thoughts of one of the many people whose story he tells — in this case, Matthew Weidner, a small-time Florida attorney waging a solitary fight against the faceless corporate lenders foreclosing on overextended homeowners. The injustices Weidner sees in one Tampa courthouse anger him. In Packer's hands, his rage becomes a long, dark soliloquy about the direction his country is headed: "America's masses fed on processed poison bought with a food stamp swipe card ... the banks in Gotham leeching the last drops of wealth out of the country, corporations unrestrained by any notion of the national interest, the system of property law in shambles...."
The modern U.S. isn't quite a kleptocracy, but it is a country spinning out of control as its leaders embrace the notion that what's good for Wall Street must be good for Main Street. In "The Unwinding," Weidner is one of several people trying to keep career and family together through boom times and bad times. Packer's other subjects include: a Youngstown, Ohio factory worker; a family on the verge of homelessness in Tampa; a gay, conservative Silicon Valley entrepreneur; and an idealistic lawyer whose earnestness takes him, fleetingly, to the highest circles of political power.
Plenty of other writers have told the story of America's economic decline. The late Pax Americana has produced reams of books in which authors use real people to tell anecdotes that illustrate this or that theory of our modern-day malaise. What distinguishes "The Unwinding" is the fullness of Packer's portraits, his willingness to show his subjects' human desires and foibles, and to give each of his subjects a fully throated voice.
Weidner, the real estate lawyer, is an NRA member and a libertarian. But after witnessing the outrages in civil court as powerful companies seek to evict grandfathers from their homes, he pens a kind of manifesto that mimics the argument and tone of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter From a Birmingham Jail": "Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of foreclosure to say 'Wait,'" he writes.
America's decline, in Packer's telling, isn't the result of a conspiracy but rather the natural consequence of the collective, individualistic fever that's taken hold of the nation's psyche. It sweeps up Newt Gingrich at a young age, who transforms it into a series of simple and powerful ideas.
"Whether he ever truly believed his own rhetoric, the generation he brought to power fervently did," Packer writes of Gingrich's rise to the speaker of the House. "He gave them mustard gas and they used it on every conceivable enemy, including him." Oprah Winfrey gets swept up in it too, her megalomania rooted in a deeply seated sense of powerlessness: "She was so big she owned the letter O.... Anyone allowed into her presence had to sign away freedom of speech for life."
Packer isn't aiming to dissect America's fall in "The Unwinding" as much as he's trying to feel the emotional and personal truths the country's fall has produced. A direct influence on the book is the novelist, John Dos Passos, whose U.S.A. trilogy described Americans struggling to hold on to their values in the first decades of the 20th century.
What's more, like a good novelist, Packer isn't willing to fit people into types. Many of those portrayed in "The Unwinding" straddle the many divides of ideology and personal outlook that define these conflictive times, like Dean Price, the North Carolina convenience store owner who embraces the biofuel principle on business and environmental grounds, even though he knows the phrase "global warming" is anathema to most of his Southern friends and neighbors.
Like many Americans, Price latches on to the idea — again and again — that he's found a simple technical solution to a complex social problem. When his first biofuels project ends in bankruptcy, he conceives of another one involving waste cooking oil. Packer follows Price as he loses himself in his obsession, driving up and down the South with a beat-up car searching for oil and finding it again and again in waste tanks behind restaurants and malls.
"Dadgummit, they're everywhere," Price says. "Look at all that oil. We'll get it man. We'll get it."
Price is an unlikely prospector but one who manages to hold on to his optimism and his belief in the future, despite one personal and national disaster after another. He believes he can strike it rich, and make the country a better and greener place too: It's an old America ethos, reconfigured for leaner times.
Packer's other subjects all undergo similar transformations. They don't give up on their visions for themselves and their country. And in the end "The Unwinding," is a book that manages to be both sad and uplifting, much like the turbulent times it describes.
An Inner History of the New America
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 448 pp, $27