Summary and book reviews of The Unwinding by George Packer

The Unwinding

An Inner History of the New America

by George Packer

The Unwinding by George Packer X
The Unwinding by George Packer
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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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About this Book

Book Summary

A riveting examination of a nation in crisis, from one of the finest political journalists of our generation.

American democracy is beset by a sense of crisis. Seismic shifts during a single generation have created a country of winners and losers, allowing unprecedented freedom while rending the social contract, driving the political system to the verge of breakdown, and setting citizens adrift to find new paths forward. In The Unwinding, George Packer, author of The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq, tells the story of the United States over the past three decades in an utterly original way, with his characteristically sharp eye for detail and gift for weaving together complex narratives.

The Unwinding journeys through the lives of several Americans, including Dean Price, the son of tobacco farmers, who becomes an evangelist for a new economy in the rural South; Tammy Thomas, a factory worker in the Rust Belt trying to survive the collapse of her city; Jeff Connaughton, a Washington insider oscillating between political idealism and the lure of organized money; and Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire who questions the Internet's significance and arrives at a radical vision of the future. Packer interweaves these intimate stories with biographical sketches of the era's leading public figures, from Newt Gingrich to Jay-Z, and collages made from newspaper headlines, advertising slogans, and song lyrics that capture the flow of events and their undercurrents.

The Unwinding portrays a superpower in danger of coming apart at the seams, its elites no longer elite, its institutions no longer working, its ordinary people left to improvise their own schemes for success and salvation. Packer's novelistic and kaleidoscopic history of the new America is his most ambitious work to date.

Excerpt
The Unwinding

No one can say when the unwinding began—when the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way. Like any great change, the unwinding began at countless times, in countless ways—and at some moment the country, always the same country, crossed a line of history and became irretrievably different.

If you were born around 1960 or afterward, you have spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding. You watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape—the farms of the Carolina Piedmont, the factories of the Mahoning Valley, Florida subdivisions, California schools. And other things, harder to see but no less vital in supporting the order of everyday life, changed beyond recognition— ways and means in Washington caucus rooms, taboos on New York trading desks, manners and morals everywhere. When the norms that made the old ...

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  • award image

    National Book Awards
    2013

Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Overall, George Packer's The Unwinding takes an ingenious approach to interpreting today's America. His way of considering the whole via its parts is intimate and insightful, and he allows readers to watch the events of the last 30 years unfold like a science experiment. Though I don't feel like I walked away with a deeper understanding of my place in this "unwinding," I do feel like Packer has given me plenty to think about.   (Reviewed by Elena Spagnolie).

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Media Reviews

The Washington Post
Packer’s dark rendering of the state of the nation feels pained but true. He offers no false hopes, no Hollywood endings, but he finds power in . . . the dignity and heart of a people.

The New York Review of Books
A work of prodigious, highly original reporting . . . [Packer] demonstrates that the future of reporting out in world isn’t in eclipse. Packer’s arduous venture commands attention.

The New York Times
[The Unwinding] hums—with sorrow, with outrage and with compassion . . . Packer’s gifts are Steinbeckian in the best sense of that term . . . [Packer has] written something close to a nonfiction masterpiece.

The New York Times Book Review
Gripping . . . deeply affecting . . . beautifully reported.

The Los Angeles Times
What distinguishes The Unwinding is the fullness of Packer’s portraits, his willingness to show his subjects’ human desires and foibles, and to give each of his subjects a fully throated voice.

The Paris Review
This is a work not just of fact, but of wit, irony, and astounding imagination.

Salon
Wide ranging, deeply reported, historically grounded and ideologically restrained . . . Instead of compelling us to engage with his theory of the past 35 years of the American experience, Packer invites us to explore the experience itself, as lived by our fellow citizens. They’re human beings, not evidence for an agenda or fodder for talking points. Understanding that is the first step toward reclaiming the nation we share with them.

The Christian Science Monitor
Masterful . . . thoughtful, thorough, and persuasive . . . the payoff comes when Packer’s various elements combine in powerful and startling ways . . . What will stay with you . . . are the book’s people, people Packer never turns into ideological mascots, people who struggle to survive, to create, to improve, even as the systems of support erode around them

The Daily Beast
Packer writes . . . beautifully and precisely; respectfully and, when warranted, critically. There is a straightforward and generous humanity in his prose.

The Financial Times
[Packer is] among the best non-fiction writers in America . . . [he] weaves an unforgettable tapestry . . . In its sensibility, The Unwinding is closer to a novel than a work of non-fiction. It is all the more powerful for it.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Trenchant ... Packer has a keen eye for the big story in the small moment, writing about our fraying social fabric with talent that matches his dismay.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. Exemplary journalism ... A foundational document in the literature of the end of America.

Booklist
Starred Review. A broad and compelling perspective on a nation in crisis ... an illuminating, in-depth, sometimes frightening view of the complexities of decline and the enduring hope of recovery.

The Chicago Tribune
Fascinating . . . elegant . . . A richly complex narrative brew.

Author Blurb David M. Kennedy, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Freedom from Fear and Over Here
George Packer has crafted a unique, irresistible contraption of a book. Not since John Dos Passos's celebrated U.S.A. trilogy, which The Unwinding recollects and rivals, has a writer so cunningly plumbed the seething undercurrents of American life. The result is a sad but delicious jazz-tempo requiem for the post–World War II American social contract. You will often laugh through your tears at these tales of lives of ever-less-quiet desperation in a land going ever-more-noisily berserk

Author Blurb Dexter Filkins, author of The Forever War
The Unwinding is the extraordinary story of what's happened to our country over the past thirty years. George Packer gives us an intimate look into American lives that have been transformed by the dissolution of all the things that used to hold us together. The result is an epic - wondrous, bracing, and true - that will stand as the defining book of our time.

Author Blurb Katherine Boo, National Book Award–winning author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Original, incisive, courageous, and essential. One of the best works of nonfiction I've read in years.

Author Blurb Nicholas Leman, author of Redemption and The Promised Land
The Unwinding presents a big, gorgeous, sad, utterly absorbing panorama of the relentless breakdown of the American social compact over a generation. George Packer communicates the scope and the human experience of the enormous change that is his subject better than any writer has so far.

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Beyond the Book

Dean Price and Biodiesel

In The Unwinding, George Packer looks at the lives of a handful of people as a way of exemplifying the evolution (or in some cases, devolution) of American politics, economics, and culture. One of these people, Dean Price, came from a long line of poor tobacco farmers in North Carolina. As a young man, he was eager to escape his father's cruelty and, after graduating from college in 1989, he worked for eight months as a pharmaceutical rep, thinking that he would be living the American dream. The only problem was that he hated it. "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."

He moved back to his hometown and started a ...

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