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Aspen Times Weekly book review: ‘The Unwinding’

by Andrew Travers

NOTEWORTHY

‘The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America’

George Packer

434 pages, paperback, $16

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013

When a U.S. politician wants to underscore a point about American exceptionalism or stick-to-itiveness, they’ll dependably find a feel-good story to tell with Main Street characters to inspire you or tug at your heartstrings. Last month in President Obama’s State of the Union address it was a Minnesota couple that struggled to weather the recession. In John McCain’s 2008 campaign it was Joe the Plumber, for reasons most of us no longer remember.

New Yorker staff writer George Packer uses a similar rhetorical tool in “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America,” but for journalistic ends — and to greater effect — as he chronicles a country in crisis. The book, which won the 2013 National Book Award for nonfiction, uses a novel-like structure and diligent reporting to illustrate the decline of American institutions over the last generation.

His main characters come from both the 99 and 1 percent, and are all portrayed in granular detail. They include Dean Price, a farmer’s son who futilely tries to bring green energy entrepreneurship to the rural south; Jeff Connaughton, a disillusioned Washington insider who watches first hand as big money gridlocks the federal government; Tammy Thomas, a machinist in Youngstown, Ohio, who fights to organize and save her dying city; and Peter Thiel, who strikes it rich in Silicon Valley but is left wanting more from our best and brightest than 140 characters on Twitter.

In Tampa, Packer dissects the housing crisis by profiling the people it utterly devastated. In downtown Manhattan, he reports from Occupy Wall Street as “the unwinding” appears to be spawning a revolution before it fizzles out in a haze of pepper spray.

As these threads move in parallel through Packer’s narrative, he intersperses them with capsule biographies of more famous Americans like Newt Gingrich, Oprah Winfrey, Sam Walton, Andrew Breitbart, Jay-Z and Elizabeth Warren.

The result is the epic, heartwrenching true story of our times and the loss of American promise, if not hope.

George Packer will speak at Winter Words on Tuesday, Feb. 10 at Paepcke Auditorium. The event is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. More info at http://www.aspenwords.com.


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