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Charting U.S. decline, without anger

by Sukhdev Sandhu

The Observer

One of the odd things about American news programs is how little American news they feature. Typhoons and hurricanes, crazies and lone gunmen, Barack Obama staging a press conference, 10 seconds about the Middle East, a famous actor doing something scandalous, back to the weather: All this giddy fragmentation is further punctuated by so many commercial breaks or mentions of what’s coming up after those breaks that it can be hard to tell the difference between reportage and retail.

THE UNWINDING: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer. Faber and Faber, 2013, 320 pp., $27 (hardcover)

America itself — its landscapes, rhythms, textures — is more invoked than evoked. A mere brand or sign. A tool to manufacture a togetherness that doesn’t exist.

George Packer’s new book is about this missing America. Spanning three decades, it’s a history of disassemblage, a chronicle of a nation where the “structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape — the farms of the Carolina Piedmont, the factories of the Mahoning Valley, Florida subdivisions, California schools.” It’s also a threnody, a lamentation about the silence, at least in political circles, around those collapsing structures: “An old city can lose its industrial foundation and two-thirds of its people, while all its mainstays — churches, government, business, charities, unions — fall like building flats in a strong wind, hardly making a sound.”

Packer, a staff writer at the New Yorker and author of “The Assassins’ Gate,” a 2005 study of the U.S. war in Iraq, is also a novelist. “The Unwinding” is strongly influenced by the “U.S.A.” trilogy (1930-36) of John Dos Passos, a political radical in his early days and a literary modernist, who famously claimed that “Mostly ‘U.S.A.’ is the speech of the people.”

Like him, Packer constructs his factual narrative from the stories of a broad range of characters: Madison-raised Dean Price is hauled out of his mixed high school by his racist father, weans himself on self-help books and opens up a slew of truck stops, convenience stores and burger joints before becoming an evangelist for biofuel. He is equal parts dreamer, indomitable entrepreneur, utopian Del Boy.

Then there’s Jeff Connaughton, an idealistic lobbyist, White House lawyer and former aide to Joe Biden who recalls in savage detail how his initial admiration for Obama’s vice president turned to disgust because of his absolute failure to push through legislation that would have broken up those national banks whose greed and corruption brought America to the brink of economic meltdown.

Packer has a great deal of time for these men and for Tammy Thomas, a black American woman from Ohio who grew up taking care of an alcoholic mother who was in and out of jail for drugs, fraud and robberies. Somehow, in spite of the steel mills in her hometown closing down and having to raise her children in a gang-colonized neighborhood, she becomes a community organizer. Less warmly portrayed is Peter Thiel, a billionaire venture capitalist and libertarian cofounder of PayPal who finances projects on seasteading and human aging reversal.

Like Dos Passos, Packer interlaces these stories, themselves recounted in small sections, with “newsreels” in which the mood of a particular year — or rather the hysterical sound and fury of its public discourse to which his own subsequent stories offer a more considered, infrasonic counterpoint — is jerry-built from newspaper headlines, tweets, television listings and pop lyrics.

Also like Dos Passos, he includes potted and sometimes vinegary biographies of various American public figures including Jay-Z, Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell, conservative activist Andrew Breitbart and, a little puzzlingly, the writer Raymond Carver. These can be damning.

Of Newt Gingrich, married to Jackie though widely known to be a philanderer, he writes: “He tried to keep it to oral sex so he could claim literal fidelity if anyone asked, but within two years the marriage was over, another adoring woman about to become the next Mrs. Gingrich, the advocate of civilization standing at Jackie’s hospital bed as she lay recovering from uterine cancer, a yellow legal pad with divorce terms in his hand.” Mostly, though, they feel like material worked up from magazine profiles or overambitious efforts to anatomize a nation through its celebrities.

Packer isn’t too clear about when “The Unwinding” took place. At one point he asks if it began with the end of the Reagan recession in 1982 and the bubbles — bond, tech, stock, housing markets — that followed. Was it caused by the deindustrialization of the 1970s? Many of the factories that disappeared forever were “hot, filthy, body- and soul-crushing” but they offered decent wages and a sense of belonging — to a community, a class, a nation — since extirpated. Or were its seeds planted in the 1950s — a decade of unrivalled middle-class prosperity — with the rise in car ownership and shopping malls, developments that would contribute to the decline of Main Street as both a real and symbolic common space?

Packer sometimes channels and sometimes overlays the voices of his confidants to point the finger at various modern criminals: lobbyists, Wall Street bankers, cynical politicians. But though he talks about how Washington was “captured” and ventriloquizes Connaughton’s growing disenchantment by talking about how “everything he had learned in law school … was bullshit,” he doesn’t name names and, like the sonorous and stylistically adept New Yorker writer he is, mostly keeps his anger in check.

Yet the subtitle of “The Unwinding” — “An Inner History of the New America” — brings to mind J.G. Ballard’s notion of “inner space.” Deploying anti-humanistic prose, Ballard drew on his fascination with America’s dark psycho-interiorities to produce extraordinarily prophetic publications such as “Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan” as early as 1968.

Equally “The Unwinding” could have learned from the roiling prose-fire of Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi, who likened Goldman Sachs to “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

Packer’s book — so decent, meticulous, concerned — reads like both a shrine to and the embodiment of a form of civics that barely exists in America these days. Is lambent lamentation enough?