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Inside Our New America

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Joel Sternfeld/Luhring Augustine, New York
Joel Sternfeld: Wet ’n Wild Aquatic Theme Park, Orlando, Florida, September 1980; from Sternfeld’s first collection of photographs, American Prospects. Originally published in 1987, the book has recently been issued in a new edition by D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers.

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 is investigative, journalistic in the best sense rather than literary. The old vehicles of journalism—“print” newspapers, magazines, television networks—may prove to be part of the unwinding he chronicles. But he demonstrates that the future of reporting out in the world—the basic function of journalism, high or low—isn’t in eclipse.

U.S.A., it must be said, proves to be brisker, easier to read, when the two books are compared for their prose. Packer has an admirable passion for facts and data, for the tangible evidence a reporter records in notebooks. But that’s sometimes too much of a good thing, making pages dense. To take an unimportant example, he loves the specificity of street addresses, so finds it necessary to tell you that a reporter looking into a mortgage fraud in a Tampa subdivision stopped at 4809 North Seventeenth Street, or that a technology billionaire set up a hedge fund office on the forty-third floor at 555 California Street in San Francisco.

With the same exactitude, he tells where his characters’ parents were born, grew up, and went to school, where they worked and prayed. He catalogs the names of rapacious financial institutions and law firms doing their dirty work. This tendency to overpacking, to fact-cramming and naming too many names, doesn’t always advance “the inner history of the new America” but certainly exhibits the sheer toil and persistence that went into the quest.

Mostly, however, on page after page, Packer’s avid attentiveness to the hard facts of local circumstances—how many enterprises closed, how many jobs lost, where the money goes—does advance that inner history. Looking at the country from the ground up, he spells out the ways the Wall Street–Washington symbiosis makes itself felt in the course or aftermath of takeovers, the disappearance of jobs, deindustrialization, hollowed local economies. Patient readers may even conclude that he gets deeper than Dos Passos.

Finally it’s not the striking but problematic nature of the book’s structure and antecedents that makes The Unwinding remarkable. It’s the stories Packer brings back in the form of telling personal histories, stories that are layered over three or four decades and over each other. Basically there are four leading characters, several more in important supporting roles, and a larger cast of walk-ons, including conspicuous or notorious politicians and celebrities from Newt Gingrich to Robert Rubin to Jay-Z.

Packer’s selection of big shots to be profiled is more eclectic and surprising than Dos Passos’s; the profiles (drawn, he notes, entirely from secondary sources) are also longer. Since anomie was his subject, the writer Raymond Carver makes the list. Since she’s a crusader for wholesomeness, the patroness of Chez Panisse, Alice Waters, does too. A late entry on the political stage, Elizabeth Warren, is held up as personifying for our times the populist spirit of “Fighting Bob,” celebrated by Dos Passos. All these lives, famous and obscure, run on parallel tracks without intersecting; often they’re shaped—in some cases distorted—by the power of what Packer calls “the default force in American life, organized money.”

The stories of his four main characters account for more than half the book. Each was born in the Sixties, the youngest in 1968, the oldest in 1960, the year Packer was born. That may explain the somewhat arbitrary dating of the unwinding as a phenomenon that surfaced in the Seventies. It’s when they came of age. The titanic Sixties, when not a few things generally deemed to have had cultural and social significance broke into plain view—the war, the pill, pot, protest marches, assassinations, riots, the raw, throbbing music—were part of the scenery when Packer’s chosen characters became aware of the world around them. When he encounters them, author and subjects are well into middle age. He obviously then followed them closely, spoke to them at length on more than one occasion, watched them as they went about their lives, and stayed in touch.

The first we encounter is Dean Price, son of a failed tobacco farmer and Baptist preacher, whose journey involves detours to Pennsylvania, Europe, and a little booze, but winds up where it began in the proud, gritty Piedmont region of North Carolina. He goes from boom to bust to boom and bust again as the region sheds manufacturing jobs by the tens of thousands. Price has a modest success starting some convenience stores and a truck stop but Walmart and other big-box stores move in, driving down prices and wages, including the price of fuel. He gets into biofuels, adding canola oil to diesel, becoming an evangelist for a locally based green economy, but his debts overwhelm him and bankruptcy ensues. When we last see him, on the book’s final page, he is in his fifties and still a visionary, promoting a new scheme for converting waste cooking oil and animal fats into biofuels. Local school buses will run on the waste from local barbecue pits and he will build a house and fill it with foster children on land his grandfather once farmed; the children will grow up to be the independent cultivators Jefferson idealized.

Packer inhabits Dean Price’s mind as he reviews his life, which has carried him through business school, a corporate job with Johnson & Johnson, several churches, a couple of marriages, and a drastic loss of faith in the country’s business and political institutions, including the first Democrat for whom he ever voted, also the first black, the one elected president in 2008. He gets stimulus funds for his biofuels enterprise and even gets to shake the president’s hand. Dean is not swept off his feet. (“It was the softest of any man he’d ever shaken hands with,” not the hand of a man who’d done physical labor.) No party or union or association speaks for him. He distills his views from apocalyptic blogs, a how-to book called The Prosperity Bible, and some pages of Gandhi on self-reliance. He is on his own—the likely fate, we’re obviously meant to conclude, of anyone who has been buffeted in the unwinding.

Next among the main actors in Packer’s lineup is Jeff Connaughton, whose political education is a parable in itself. He’s an undergraduate business major at the University of Alabama when, in 1979, he hears a speech by the young Joe Biden that changes his life. It isn’t what Biden said but how he said it. Soon he has invited the senator to Tuscaloosa on the first of three paid speaking appearances. Biden tells the same jokes each time but Connaughton is “hooked.” He goes to business school and Wall Street but quits a six-figure brokerage job to work in Biden’s first, very brief presidential campaign where he’s given fund-raising tasks, making calls the candidate himself disdains making; disillusion is the instantaneous result. He finds himself hawking dinners with the senator to prospective donors for $25,000 (dinners at his home in Delaware go for $50,000). But Biden has long since forgotten his name and when he tries to speak to the candidate, he gets a grumbled brush-off.

Nevertheless, he stays on in Washington. The star-struck young idealist has become “a Biden guy,” even though he never develops a relationship of any warmth with the senator. (“Biden had used him, and he had used Biden, and they would go on using each other, but that would be all,” Packer writes. “It was a Washington relationship.”) The revolving door turns several times—he gets a law degree, goes from being a Senate staffer to an assistant counsel in the Clinton White House—then joins a high-powered lobbying firm that works both sides of the aisle, till he’s bought out for a cool million dollars in a takeover. He has prospered as a member of the permanent Washington class but feels, at least sometimes, that for all his professionalism, he has sold out.

In his final Washington job he tries to make amends. He’s back on the Hill, as a Senate chief of staff, fighting the good fight for an amendment he helped draft to scale down the big banks. Inevitably, the ex-lobbyist’s amendment is steamrolled by lobbyists. When we last encounter Jeff Connaughton, he’s living in Savannah, volunteering for the local legal services office, and writing a book he calls The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins. Nothing in a book with that title would surprise Dean Price.

Or Peter Thiel, a polemicist and self-described libertarian in his student days at Stanford, who represents the advent of the Internet and the pull of Silicon Valley in Packer’s cavalcade. Thiel, who becomes an acolyte of Ayn Rand, is another of Packer’s major characters who winds up disillusioned, even though he gained entry, for a time anyway, to the Valhalla where Silicon Valley’s technology billionaires dwell. Having made $55 million on a $240,000 investment in PayPal, he rolled over $500,000 into Facebook and walked away with $1 billion.

He then made his first wrong move, starting a hedge fund that nose-dived in the banking crisis of 2008, taking with it much but not all of his wealth. By the time Mitt Romney came to his door in 2011 to ask for his support and money, Thiel had this to say: “I think that the most pessimistic candidate is going to win, because if you are too optimistic it suggests you are out of touch.” The candidate isn’t sure he’s hearing right. What about the promise of the information age? he asks. The former technology billionaire has concluded that that promise is overblown, if not false. Taken altogether, the tech companies in which he puts his money, he estimates, employ fewer than 15,000 people. Twitter offers job security to maybe five hundred in this country. He brands the companies and their leaders “escapist” and “autistic,” absorbed as they are in gadgets and a virtual world. “You have dizzying change where there’s no progress,” he says. In the political arena, Ron Paul is his man. He gives Paul’s Super PAC $2.6 million.

Peter Thiel’s later investment interests would change the real world if they could be made to work. They are life extension (using an electron microscope to read the human genome, opening the way to the reversal of genetic disorders); and, if all else fails, cryonics, the effort to sustain organisms at low temperatures so they can be revived and treated at some future date. This, he probably would argue, is the opposite of “escapist.”

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