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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  • First Published:
    May 2013, 448 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2014, 448 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Elena Spagnolie

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When Dean was seventeen, his father quit the church on Mayodan Mountain and moved the family out to the eastern part of the state, near Greenville, where he took the pulpit of a small church in the town of Ayden. It was his last one. After four months there, Minister Price was sent packing, and the family went back to Rockingham County. They had very little money and moved into Dean's mother's family house on Route 220, outside the little town of Stokesdale, a few miles south of Madison. Dean's grandmother Ollie Neal lived in an apartment they had built in back, and behind the house was the tobacco farm that his grandfather, Birch Neal, had won in a card game in 1932, when Route 220 was a dirt road.

By then, Dean wanted only to escape his father's dominion. When he turned eighteen, he drove to Winston-Salem and met with a Marine recruiter. He was supposed to return the next morning to enlist, but overnight he changed his mind. He wanted to see the world and live life to its fullest, but he would do it on his own.

At the time Dean graduated from high school, in 1981, the best job around was making cigarettes at the huge R.J. Reynolds factories in Winston-Salem. If you got a job there you were set for life, with good pay and benefits plus two cartons of cigarettes a week. That's where the B students ended up. The C and D students went to work at the textile mills, where the pay was lower—DuPont and Tultex in Martinsville, Dan River in Danville, Cone in Greensboro, or one of the smaller mills around Madison—or in the furniture factories down in High Point and up in Martinsville and Bassett, Virginia. The A students—three in his class—went to college. (Thirty years later, at his high school reunion, Dean found that his classmates had grown fat and were working in pest control or peddling T-shirts at carnivals. One guy, a career employee at R.J. Reynolds, had lost a job he'd believed to be secure and never got over it.)

Dean never applied himself in school, and the summer after graduating he got a job in the shipping department of a copper tube factory in Madison. He made damn good money for 1981, but it was the kind of job he'd always feared ending up in—the lifers around him with no ambition, spending their days talking about drinking, racing, and fucking. Dean hated it so much that he decided to go to college.

The only one his father would help pay for was Bob Jones University, a Bible school in South Carolina. Bob Jones barred interracial dating and marriage, and in early 1982, a few months after Dean enrolled, the school became national news when the Reagan administration challenged an IRS decision that had denied Bob Jones tax-exempt status. After a storm of criticism, Reagan reversed himself. According to Dean, Bob Jones was the only college in the world where the barbed wire around the campus was turned inward, not outward, like at a prison. The boys had to keep their hair above their ears, and the only way to communicate with the girls on the other side of campus was to write a note and put it in a box that a runner would take from dorm to dorm. The only thing Dean liked about Bob Jones was singing old hymns in morning chapel, like "Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow." He stopped going to class and failed every course his first semester.

At Christmas, he came home and told his father that he was quitting school and moving out of the house. His father slapped him silly, knocked him to the floor. Dean got up and said, "If you ever touch me again I will kill you, I promise you that." It was the last time he ever lived under his father's roof.

After Dean moved out, his father went into a downward spiral. He took oxycodone pills by the handful, for back pain, headaches, and other real or invented ailments, prescribed by a dozen different doctors who didn't know about the others. Dean's mother found pills hidden in his suit pockets, stashed away in garbage bags. They gave his father a vacant look and wore away his stomach lining. He would retreat into his study as if to read one of his religious books, but that was where he'd pop some oxycodone and zone out. He was admitted into rehab several times.

Copyright © 2013 by George Packer

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