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George Packer’s ‘The Unwinding’ draws a sharp line between the movers and the moved

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Chuck Twardy

Three and a half stars

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer, $27.

George Packer’s The Unwinding is a work of People’s History. Its recounting of the last half-century, roughly, focuses on how Ordinary People endure history as it is made by Great Men. A social structure unravels before our eyes, through theirs.

If you have made it to your middle years, you are aware of it, a Post-Industrial World displacing the certainties of the Late Industrial. The rise and acceptance of Labor had built a broad middle class, but the crumbling of industry and the simultaneous rise of branding and “wealth creation” have diminished it.

That’s part of Packer’s brief, at least, as he chronicles the lives of the unchronicled, the knight’s pages and impressed farmhands wondering if the chap with the caparisoned stallion knows where we’re going. Jeff Connaughton, for instance, is a faithful servant, an Alabama lad who could not shake off a brief encounter with nobility, and who shed a career in financial finagling to help Joe Biden suit up for battle. But Connaughton finds only disillusionment in both politics and Biden.

Or there’s Dean Price, the small-town North Carolina boy, Christ-haunted in Flannery O’Connor’s phrase, who works his way into and out of promising endeavors that insufficiently pan out—although, oddly, he finds a small measure of success in my county, Pitt, whose school board sells cafeteria cooking grease to his biofuels-making project. Or Tammy Thomas, who watches African American society crater as Youngstown, Ohio, collapses on itself, and remembers living with her servant grandmother in the mansion of a declining old lady. It’s something of a metaphor for the book—little people lost in history’s abandoned spaces.

And so on, their tales told incrementally, with breezy bios of Oprah Winfrey and Sam Walton and others Packer sees, presumably, as Unwinders scattered among them. Or, in Elizabeth Warren’s case, a would-be Rewinder. Packer unfolds Warren’s biographical sketch up to her Senate run last year, which she won. But he concentrates on how a decade’s worth of research into personal bankruptcy converted Warren from a Republican convinced that poor people are cheats to a bête noire of Republicans and Democrats alike. Not only did she learn that her assumptions were wrong, she realized that both parties were serving the interests of investment bankers, by stripping away regulations and greasing the skids for continuing cycles of boom and bust. “She had arrived at radicalism, like many conservatives before her, by seeing the institutions that had sustained the old way of life collapse,” Packer writes.

Sections open with Key Years, each with a torrent of headlines and taglines, such as Apple’s infamous assurance that 1984 was not 1984. These complement Hooker’s loosely narrative-nonfiction approach. His sweep is breathtaking, but for a 448-page book, the pace seems oddly breathless at times, and you wonder if Packer sometimes succumbs to a superficiality he would otherwise condemn. His “A Note on Sources” is a bibliography; nothing is directly attributed. But Packer’s prose is nearly always flawless—cleverly descriptive, charmed or bitter as needed. And he leaves room, at least, to imagine a Rewind.

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