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Book review

‘The Unwinding’ by George Packer

anthony russo for the boston globe

Sometimes a subject is so intricate it can be properly addressed only in a 400-plus page book. Sometimes that book is so well-organized and compelling that it only burnishes the author’s justly-deserved sterling reputation.

This is not one of those times. “The Unwinding’’ is perhaps New Yorker writer George Packer’s worst nonfiction book. That is, however, not hugely insulting. Packer’s 2005 book “The Assassins’ Gate’’ still stands as a fantastic chronicle of America’s descent into Iraq. A 2000 book called “Blood of the Liberals’’ that he wrote is nearly as impressive. But “The Unwinding,’’ while well-written, intelligent, and frequently engaging, falls short of those achievements.

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“The Unwinding’’ chronicles three decades of upheaval in the lives of a trio of Americans, illustrating the decline of both the middle-class and the possibility of social mobility in post-1970s America. Dean Price, the son of tobacco farmers in rural North Carolina, is a classic American dreamer, a man who can never be convinced that his entrepreneurial ventures will fail. Tammy Thomas is the daughter of a heroin addict, whose town of Youngstown, Ohio, has been devastated by the shuttering of its manufacturing plants. Finally, Jeff Connaughton is the archetypal idealistic student who idolizes a young senator named Joe Biden, becomes disillusioned with Washington, goes to work as a well-paid lobbyist, and finally achieves some sort of redemption by leaving the city that corrupted him.

All three are compelling and sketched with Packer’s trademark empathy. “Winning and losing are all-American games, and in the unwinding winners win bigger than ever, floating away like bloated dirigibles, and losers have a long way to fall before they hit bottom, and sometimes they never do,” he writes. But none of his subjects are so interesting that they could not have been written in shorter magazine articles, a format that would have condensed their stories into their most interesting aspects. Indeed, Connaughton was a subject of a fine October 2012 New Yorker article, but the elaboration on his life in “The Unwinding’’ feels superfluous.

Price, Thomas, and Connaughton all demonstrate the unraveling of the American post-World War II economic and political systems. Price and Thomas are particularly heartbreaking individuals; BOTH are infused with quintessential American optimism that never abates even as their country repeatedly fails them.

After President Obama is reelected, Thomas thinks, “My God, it means we’ve got a chance to do something for real.” Price, after so many failures, is incapable of accepting his fate. “[E]ven though he was going to lose his piece of the family farm to a foreclosure sale, because his bankruptcy had been reopened, and his nemesis, the oil man, was going after the only asset Dean had left, which was the land — none of that matters,” writes Packer. “He still had a dream of building a big white house and filling it with children. He would get the land back.”

But, it must be said, there is nothing in these pages that equals the power of Barbara Garson’s “Down the Up Escalator.’’ That work, released in April, is also an account of lives devastated by the Great Recession. But it doesn’t have the fatal flaw of “The Unwinding’’: useless interludes telling of the one-percenters on the winning end of the age of inequality.

Short chapters are devoted to the fortunes of the likes OF NewtGingrich, Oprah WINFREY, Colin Powell, Sam Walton, Robert Rubin, and Andrew Breitbart. These interludes are meant to underscore the unfairness that defines the present-day American social system, of course. But is there anyone in the country who is unaware of the spectacular successes of the well-heeled few?

Only once does Packer explain in an original fashion the connection between the economically successful and everyone else. “Over the years, America had become more like Wal-Mart,” he writes. “Prices were lower, and wages were lower. There were fewer union factory jobs, and more part-time jobs as store greeters. The small towns where Mr. Sam had seen his opportunity were getting poorer, which meant that consumers there depended more and more on everyday low prices, and made every last purchase at Wal-Mart, and maybe had to work there, too.”

Such connections are rare in “The Unwinding,’’ however, leaving readers all too often to make their own inferences about the ways in which wealthy and influential Americans manipulated the system to enrich themselves at the expense of middle- and working-class citizens. “The Unwinding’’ is compelling at times, but it won’t tell Americans much that they do not already know. And it could have. Coming from a writer of Packer’s immense talent, it cannot be evaluated as anything other than a disappointment.

Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer at Salon.com and the Christian Science Monitor.
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