American elegy

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, RRP$27, 448 pages. Published in the UK by Faber in June

Early in this book, George Packer offers a devastating pen portrait of Oprah Winfrey – patron saint of daytime TV and über-celebrity of the times. Like many of Packer’s subjects, an eclectic gallery that includes characters such as Alice Waters, godmother of modern American cooking, and Peter Thiel, the libertarian founder of PayPal, Oprah never resurfaces. Five pages are all it takes.

At its height, her show had a weekly audience of 40m*. “But being instructed in Oprah’s magical thinking (vaccinations cause autism; positive thoughts lead to wealth, love, and success) and watching Oprah always doing more, owning more, not all her viewers began to live their best life,” writes Packer. “They didn’t have nine houses, or maybe any house . . . they were never all that they could be. And since there was no random suffering in life, Oprah left them with no excuse.”

Packer, a staff writer at the New Yorker – and among the best non-fiction writers in America – devotes most of The Unwinding to those whom Oprah has robbed of excuses. Billed as “an inner history of the new America”, the book is both a portrait of a country in flux and an elegy to those on the wrong side of it. Starting in 1978 and concluding after Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election, the big events – from Ronald Reagan’s first victory to the attacks of 9/11 – supply only fleeting backdrops to the odysseys of its characters.

The Unwinding is about the majority of Americans whose lives have grown more atomised and less financially secure in the past generation. And it is about a society whose cultural landmarks have been crowded out by monuments to the new household gods – “celebrities who only grow more exalted as other things recede”. In one sketch, Packer observes that Raymond Carver “seemed to know, in the unintentional way of a fiction writer, that the country’s future would be most unnerving in its ordinariness”. This is also Packer’s canvas.

His book returns again and again to the lives of three Americans. Dozens of others – obscure and famous – make cameo appearances. Rarely do they intersect. Yet Packer weaves an unforgettable tapestry.

There is Tammy Thomas, an African-American factory worker from Youngstown, Ohio, who struggles to shield her children from a world where the predictability of the Mob is making way for the gangs who rule the town’s collapsing neighbourhoods. Before losing her job, Thomas was annually laid off after 90 days so her employer could avoid paying health insurance. Amid the “broken windows, weedy asphalt and empty parking lots”, she raises drug-free children. Each manages to complete high school. Though defrauded by a relative of most of her $48,000 life savings, Thomas only gets stronger. Much as Obama began, she ends up as a community activist.

In her youth, everyone worked at the mills or plants. Now those with jobs work at the cheap retail and fast food outlets for $8 an hour. Forty per cent of Youngstown’s lots are vacant. Even the odour has changed. “I grew up in a place where you could sit on my front porch and you could smell the sulphur in the air,” says Thomas.

There is Jeff Connaughton, a “romantic believer” who, as a 19-year-old at the University of Alabama, is inspired by the speech of a young Senator from Delaware called Joe Biden. Connaughton, a “perfect number two guy”, devotes the bulk of his career to Biden without so much as a thank-you. In a good mood, the future vice-president would address Connaughton as “Cap’n” or “Chief”. More often it would be “dumb fuck”. “He endured the muttered rebuke at a hearing, the silence that answered every joke he tried,” writes Packer. “Eventually Connaughton sat at a desk right outside Biden’s office, but he never dared to ask to see the boss.”

As is often the way in Washington, the idealist became a middle-aged cynic, swapping the ardour of a follower for the networker’s antennae – and furthering his new life as a lobbyist by dropping the senator’s name. Biden is “an equal opportunity disappointer”, says Ted Kaufman of the man he served as chief-of-staff before taking over his Senate seat in 2009. Connaughton joined Kaufman as his chief-of-staff on a doomed joint quest to break up the big banks. Last year Connaughton wrote a memoir, The Payoff, about how Wall Street authored the bill that was supposed to re-regulate it. When he quit DC for the last time, he got into a shower in all his clothes and let it “soak him and soak him until he felt clean”.

And there is Dean Price, son of a North Carolinian tobacco farmer, whose life is a quixotic battle against the big out-of-town retailers that are sucking vitality from the neighbourhoods. A serial entrepreneur, Price immerses himself in retail, biofuel, recycling – many lines of business – in a string of failures that could fill several lives. Though “hog-tied” by the discounters, the banks and their lawyers, Price never loses faith that small-town life can be reinvented. As a green-tech entrepreneur, Price gets to shake Obama’s hand. Soon after, he loses his family’s land in foreclosure.

Price is unfazed by the losses. He befriends Tom Perriello, then a Virginia congressman, who has lost faith that America’s leaders have the answers. “Elites thought that everyone needed to become a computer programmer or a financial engineer, that there would be no jobs between eight dollars and hour and six figures,” writes Packer. “Perriello believed that the new ideas for making things in America again would come from unknown people in obscure places.” Such as Dean Price.

In its sensibility, The Unwinding is closer to a novel than a work of non-fiction. It is all the more powerful for it. At one point, we meet Sam Walton, founder of Walmart and the most single-minded retail empire builder in history. His heirs have more money than the bottom 30 per cent of Americans, most of whom frequent his stores. At an annual meeting in 1989, Walton exhorted his company to reach $100bn in annual sales before the millennium – an outrageous goal, which was exceeded. “Can we do it?” he shouted to 9,000 employees. “Yes, we can!” they chanted back.

The audience has been corrected from an earlier incorrect figure.

Edward Luce is the FT’s chief US commentator and author of ‘Time to Start Thinking: America and the Spectre of Decline’ (Little, Brown)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.