Before jumping off on his brave spelunking descent into the “new America,” George Packer offers up an orientation, or maybe it’s a pep talk, for readers who’ll be accompanying him on his expedition. In just eight paragraphs, he sketches a philosophy of history that’s faintly Hegelian. His dialectic works like this: every so often—a couple of times a century, it seems—American society unravels, ripping ties that bind communities, families, and individuals, leaving them mostly in free fall, except for self-seekers and climbers who manage to hang on and find higher and higher handholds.
Such dislocations are his eponymous “unwindings,” the most recent of which—not yet ended, according to this vision—started in this country at some point in the 1970s. “The future had been in decline ever since 1973,” he writes, paraphrasing one of the real-life characters he advances as representative voices, if not archetypes, of our era.
Packer’s overture, with its sweeping themes, may seem a mite overwrought. But it signals that something big is on offer here. How big soon becomes apparent. It’s his ambitious project to reincarnate in these pages, and for these times, John Dos Passos’s sprawling 1930s trilogy U.S.A.
Dos Passos’s novels, often described as collages, present fairly conventional renderings of the stories of characters meant to be representative of the generation of Americans that came of age, more or less, during World War I. Interacting with these are “newsreels” of a page or two—flashing fragments of popular culture in the form of headlines, speeches, lyrics, and ads—and numbered prose poems, each labeled “The Camera Eye,” conveying the narrator’s own private musings. Finally, Dos Passos’s recipe includes a sprinkling of light, sardonic sketches of politicians and power wielders: Henry Ford and Teddy Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan and “Fighting Bob” La Follette.
Dos Passos himself took to calling the total package a “montage” or “contemporary chronicle,” explaining in a Paris Review interview two years before his death in 1970 that he wanted “to get something a little more accurate than fiction.” In the next breath, he insisted, “The aim was always to produce fiction.”
That’s not Packer’s aim. Dos Passos furnishes the sculptural armature rather than the model for what Packer has assembled. The very idea of making The Unwinding a homage to U.S.A.—a book that most of his readers will have only dipped into at best—is both daring and limiting. Unlike its forerunner, The Unwinding cannot easily be read as a work of imagination. Yet it deserves to be hailed for what it is: a work of prodigious, highly original reporting. Packer’s driving ambition …