Excerpt from The Unwinding by George Packer, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Unwinding

An Inner History of the New America

By George Packer

The Unwinding
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  • Hardcover: May 2013,
    448 pages.
    Paperback: Mar 2014,
    448 pages.

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Dean's best friend was his grandfather. Norfleet Price cut wood until the fall before he died, at age eighty-nine, in 2001. Near the end Dean visited him in the rest home and found him strapped to a wheelchair. "Hoss, you got your pocketknife?" his grandfather said.

"Pa, I can't do that."

Norfleet wanted to be cut out of the wheelchair. He lasted just a month and a half in the rest home. He was buried in the Price family plot, on a gentle rise in the red clay fields. Norfleet had always worked two or three jobs to get away from his wife, but the name Ruth was carved right next to his on the same headstone, waiting for the body and date of death.

Dean's father had a chance to break the spell of the family's poverty thinking. Harold Dean Price, called Pete, was bright and liked to read. Three blank pages at the back of his copy of Merriam-Webster's dictionary were filled with handwritten definitions of words like "obtuse," "obviate," "transpontine," "miscegenation," "simulacrum," "pejorative." He was a good talker, a fervent hard-shell Baptist, and a bitter racist. Once, Dean visited the civil rights museum in the old Woolworth's building in downtown Greensboro, where the first sit-ins took place at the lunch counter in 1960. There was a blown-up picture of the four black students from North Carolina A&T walking out onto the street past a mob of white youths who stared them down—hot rods with their hands in their pockets, T-shirts and rolled-up jeans, slicked-back hair, cigarettes hanging from angry mouths. That was Dean's father. He hated the defiance of the civil rights people, though he never felt that way about Charlie and Adele Smith, the black tenant farmers on the Price land who took care of him when Dean's grandmother was working at the mill. They were kindhearted and full of humor and understood their place in the scheme of things.

Pete Price met Barbara Neal at a local dance hall and married her in 1961, the year he graduated from Western Carolina College—the first person in his family to get that far. Harold Dean Price II was born in 1963, followed by three sisters. The family moved into a small brick house in Madison, around the corner from the Sharp and Smith tobacco warehouse. Madison and its neighbor Mayodan were textile towns, and in the sixties and seventies the mills had jobs for any young man coming out of high school who wanted one, and if you had a college degree you could take your pick. The brick storefronts on Main Street—pharmacies and haberdasheries and furniture stores and luncheonettes—were full of shoppers, especially on days when the textile warehouses held their sales. "Our country probably prospered as much as it's ever going to prosper, right there in that era," Dean said. "They had cheap energy, they had oil in the ground, they had working farms in the surrounding countryside, they had a people that didn't mind working, they knew what work was about. There was money to be made."

Dean's father went to work for the big DuPont plant that manufactured nylon up in Martinsville, just across the Virginia state line. In the late sixties, he fell for the era's version of a snake oil salesman in the person of Glenn W. Turner, the semiliterate son of a South Carolina sharecropper, who wore shiny three-piece suits and calfskin boots and spoke with the bad lisp of a harelip. In 1967, Turner started a company, Koscot Interplanetary, that sold cosmetics distributorships for five thousand dollars apiece, with the promise of a finder's fee for every new subfranchisee that the distributor signed up. His followers were also lured into purchasing a black briefcase full of Glenn W. Turner motivational cassette tapes, called "Dare to Be Great," that went for up to five thousand dollars, with a similar view to getting rich off selling the rights to sell the program. The Prices paid for a distributorship and hosted rousing "Dare to Be Great" parties at their house in Madison: a movie projector showed a film on Turner's rags-to-riches life story, then the prospects shouted Turner lines about standing on your tiptoes and reaching for the stars. By 1971, "Dare to Be Great" had swept through blue-collar neighborhoods across the country, and Turner was profiled in Life magazine. Then he was investigated for running a pyramid scheme and ultimately served five years in prison, and the Prices lost their money.

Copyright © 2013 by George Packer

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