Anyone paying attention in the last few decades has seen upheaval and breakdown in American institutions — economic, educational, governmental and more. Often, we perceive them abstractly, in overview: housing crisis, financial meltdown, industrial outsourcing, income inequality, political polarization. In The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, George Packer shows us the impact of those interconnected crises on the lives of a wide range of individual Americans. Among the people he writes about in sharp and affecting detail are some living right here in the Tampa Bay area: a family teetering on the edge of homelessness, a tea party activist, a lawyer specializing in foreclosure cases, a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times.
Packer is a staff writer for the New Yorker and an award-winning author (The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq) and playwright (Betrayed). The Unwinding is his fourth nonfiction book, and it combines deep research with compelling, almost novelistic narrative. Packer acknowledges that one inspiration for the book is John Dos Passos' USA Trilogy, a sadly neglected classic of American literature. That experimental trilogy combined fiction and nonfiction, while Unwinding is all nonfiction, but it echoes Dos Passos' evocative style and political concerns.
As Dos Passos did in the 1930s, Packer gives us a contemporary cross-section of Americans. There are recurring chapters about three people: Dean Price, descended from generations of North Carolina tobacco farmers and possessed of an unquenchable entrepreneurial spirit, struggles with his own personal boom-and-bust cycle as he tries to start a biofuel business. Ambitious Tammy Thomas, descended from slaves, finds an upward economic path as a factory worker in Youngstown, Ohio, then watches her city and her own life implode as unions collapse and manufacturing moves overseas. From humble beginnings, Jeff Connaughton's life follows a high-powered loop: He cycles repeatedly from fundraising positions in Joe Biden's various campaigns (and an eventual White House gig) to lucrative jobs with Wall Street firms and K Street lobbying outfits.
There are also short chapters about public figures that are wonderfully detailed and insightful about each one's influence on the culture, from Alice Waters ("a moralist of pleasure, a bohemian scold") to Jay-Z ("a corporate rapper, an outlaw entrepreneur"), from Newt Gingrich to Elizabeth Warren, Oprah Winfrey to Andrew Brietbart.
Interspersed with those are chapters about two places: Silicon Valley and Tampa. The first is an obvious choice for a portrait of American culture in the 21st century, but what Packer reveals may not be what you expect. These chapters focus on Peter Thiel, a phenomenally wealthy investor and innovator. (He was in on the ground floor of PayPal and Facebook, just to name two.) Yet the iconoclastic, libertarian Thiel does not see recent tech innovation as a pure boon: "Compared to the Apollo space program or the supersonic jet, a smartphone looked small. In the forty years leading up to 1973, there had been huge technological advances, and wages had increased sixfold. Since then, Americans beguiled by mere gadgetry had forgotten how expansive progress could be."
Tampa serves as Packer's ground zero for the effects of the housing crash and attendant financial mudbaths. He writes about Usha Patel, an immigrant whose economic success leads her to buy a Comfort Inn in Pasco County in 2005 — "They get you into debt like putting butter in your mouth" — only to find herself in a Kafkaesque struggle to avoid foreclosure; in one "rocket docket" Hillsborough County courtroom, a judge ruled on 120 foreclosures a day, giving "each case three minutes, and usually less, for justice to be served."
He also writes about Times reporter Michael Van Sickler, who covered the crash in real time as the newspaper's planning and growth reporter starting in 2005. Packer describes Van Sickler's series of articles on Carriage Pointe, a "ghost subdivision" in Gibsonton where new homeowners saw prices plunge by half and what was supposed to be a pleasant suburban neighborhood devolve into a place where some of the many vacant, foreclosed houses became drug dens. He also recounts Van Sickler's reporting on Sang-Min "Sonny" Kim, a Tampa man who bought hundreds of houses in areas like Sulphur Springs and Belmont Heights as part of a mortgage fraud ring. Those articles led to Kim's indictment in 2010, "but months went by and no one else was brought in. Van Sickler wondered, 'Where are the big arrests? Where are the bankers, the lawyers, the real estate professionals?' ... It was the same in Washington and New York: not one criminal case brought against the big banks."
One effect of Packer's strategy of telling a huge and complex story through the voices of individuals is that it has resounding emotional impact: The Unwinding is likely to make you angry, whatever your politics may be.
But those individual voices also lift above the struggles. As Packer writes in his prologue, "There have been unwindings every generation or two: the fall to earth of the Founders' heavenly Republic in a noisy marketplace of quarrelsome factions; the war that tore the United States apart and turned them from plural to singular; the crash that laid waste to the business of America, making way for a democracy of bureaucrats and everymen. Each decline brought renewal, each implosion released energy, out of each unwinding came a new cohesion.
"The unwinding brings freedom, more than the world has ever granted, and to more kinds of people than ever before...."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.