Review of The Unwinding

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New Yorker staff writer George Packer is one of America’s foremost journalists and nonfiction authors. He wrote a definitive account of postwar Iraq, The Assassins’ Gate: America In Iraq, as well as The Village of Waiting. He’s also written widely on the contemporary history of the United States in other nonfiction works and for The New Yorker. Packer is a brilliant, spare stylist. He writes with a singular combination of compassion and objective remove. His simple presentation of terrible facts and events – while not belaboring their subtext with too much interpretation – evokes their profundity, and conveys the emotions of the moment with great power. The discipline of his voice and rigor of his reporting nourish a sense of truth. Packer’s power comes not just from his accuracy, but also from his instinct for the zeitgeist. When Packer shines his light, larger, more important social, historical and economic truths emerge. He has a gift for communicating the layers of society that most journalists overlook or can’t describe. This is an oblique portrait of the “unwinding” of the American Dream and the end of an America built on plurality and bipartisanship. In his brief, heart-wrenching “Prologue,” Packer describes a collapse of the US economy, the collapse of social norms and institutions that sustained that economy, and the collapse of any sense of Americans creating America together. He encapsulates the entire book in one sentence by naming the power that replaced America’s institutions, spirit and togetherness: “the default force in American life, organized money.” Packer describes a variety of citizens – Newt Gingrich, Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell, Tammy Thomas, Peter Thiel – and places – Tampa, Florida, Silicon Valley – and more. The stories illustrate the unwinding. While always politically neutral, getAbstract recommends this unforgettable pastiche to Americans trying to figure out how their country became what it is today, and to anyone who wants to understand that conundrum.

About the Author

New Yorker staff writer George Packer’s nonfiction books include Interesting Times: Writings from a Turbulent Decade; The Assassins’ Gate: America In Iraq; The Village of Waiting; and Blood of the Liberals, which won the 2001 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. He also wrote the novels The Half Man and Central Square.


Narrative, Moral and Practical Lessons

Packer does not editorialize. He lets each person’s story – working-class mothers, billionaire investors, lifelong governmental apparatchiks – carry its own narrative as well as moral and practical lessons. The steady accumulation of detail, and the skillful choice of subject matter and brilliant juxtaposition of those subjects, steadily builds an understanding of today’s United States that you will feel in your heart before you analyze it in your brain. Packer weaves a fabric that evokes strong emotions. If you seek facts that depict the steady decline of the US as a democratic community, you won’t come up short. If you seek a list of positive role models or behaviors to avoid, you’ll find plenty of each. And if you want a nuts-and-bolts account of how American lives unravel and unchecked ambition gains rewards, you will not be disappointed.

Newt Gingrich

Packer regards Newt Gingrich as a seminal figure in the “total war” that US partisan politics have become. Packer traces Gingrich’s roots: His father, “Big Newt,” was a violent man who punched Gingrich’s mother shortly after their wedding. She divorced him, but was already pregnant. Big Newt allowed her next husband to adopt Newt so he could stop paying child support. As a boy, Gingrich was chubby and strange; he had bad vision and “no close friends.” Many years later, he wrote out a list he called “primary mission.” He named the things he would become. One was “arouser of those who fan civilization.” Gingrich was unfaithful to his first wife and stood over her hospital bed during her cancer treatment, holding a yellow legal pad listing his demands in the divorce he had initiated. Once in Congress, Gingrich was a pioneer of giving late-night speeches on C-SPAN to an empty congressional chamber. C-SPAN’s camera never showed that Gingrich spoke to rows of vacant seats.

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