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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Out in the world, Dean went hog wild. He quickly discovered the pleasures of alcohol, gambling, marijuana, fighting, and women. His first girl was a minister's daughter, and he lost his virginity right under the church piano. He was full of rebellion and wanted no part of his father's God. "I was a shit-ass," Dean said. "I had no respect for anybody." He moved to Greensboro and shared a house with a pothead. For a while he had a job as the assistant golf pro at the Greensboro Country Club for a hundred twenty dollars a week. In 1983, when he was twenty, he decided to go back to college and enrolled at the state university in Greensboro. It took Dean six years of bartending to graduate—at one stage his education was interrupted by a five-month trip with his best friend, Chris, to California, where they lived in a VW bus and pursued girls and good times—but in 1989 he finally earned his degree, in political science.

Dean was a registered Republican, and Reagan was his idol. To Dean, Reagan was like a soothing grandfather: he had that ability to communicate and inspire people, like when he spoke about "a city upon a hill." It was something Dean thought he could do as well, since he was a good speaker and came from a family of preachers. When Reagan talked, you trusted him, and he gave you hope that America could be great again. He was the only politician who ever made Dean want to become one himself—an idea that ended the week he was busted for smoking pot on the steps of a campus building and arrested a few days later for driving under the influence.

He had told himself that he would see the world, and after graduating, Dean bummed around Europe for a few months, sleeping in hostels and sometimes even on park benches. But he was still ambitious—"insanely ambitious," he liked to say. When he came home, he decided to look for the best job with the best company that he could find.

In his mind, that had always been Johnson & Johnson, up in New Jersey. The employees at Johnson & Johnson wore blue suits, they were clean, articulate, well paid, they drove company cars and had health benefits. Dean moved to Philadelphia with a girlfriend and set out to meet anyone who worked at the company. His first contact was a fellow with perfectly combed blond hair, in a blue seersucker suit, white shoes, and a bow tie—the sharpest dresser Dean had ever seen. He called the corporate offices almost every day of the week, he went in for seven or eight interviews, he spent a year trying to will himself into a job, and in 1991 Johnson & Johnson finally submitted and made him a pharmaceutical rep in Harrisburg. Dean bought a blue suit and cut his hair short and tried to lose the southern accent, which he thought would be taken for backwardness. He was given a pager and a computer, and he drove around in a company car from one doctor's office to another, sometimes eight a day, with samples of drugs, explaining the benefits and side effects.

It didn't take him long to realize that he hated the job. At the end of every day, he had to report back to the office about every stop he'd made. He was a robot, a number, and the company was Big Brother watching. Any personal initiative was frowned on if it didn't fit the Johnson & Johnson mold. After eight months, less time than he'd spent trying to get the position, Dean quit.

He had bought into a lie: go to college, get a good education, get a job with a Fortune 500 company, and you'd be happy. He had done all that and he was miserable. He'd gotten out of his father's house only to find another kind of servitude. He decided to start over and do things his own way. He would become an entrepreneur.

Copyright © 2013 by George Packer

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