If you've ever driven through freshly paved suburbia and wondered at the absurdity of two different pharmacies—a CVS and a Walgreens, say—occupying opposite corners, George Packer's The Unwinding might be for you.
On the street corners, the legal drug dealers compete for a piece of the high-margin prescription trade for our medicated population. These and similar chain stores are located in strip malls near housing developments that are dubiously financed by cheap credit. The sprawl is as environmentally ruinous as it is spiritually vacant and socially alienating.
Packer, a longtime reporter for The New Yorker, doesn't use this example in his new book, but it's symptomatic of the malaise he describes. The Unwinding is essentially a lament for the disappearance of the American dream—or perhaps the American reality that existed until about 1973. That heyday was one of high employment, industrial productivity and union representation. Many people with high school diplomas reached the middle class. It was also the age of moon landings and supersonic jets. It was when a Republican president created the Environmental Protection Agency and agitated for government-led health insurance. (Yes, there was also Vietnam and racial injustice, but a far more activist population engaged in mass protests for change.)
That era of optimism seems to be over, even as the consolations of consumerism are everywhere, glittering on our oversize HDTV screens. As one person profiled at length in The Unwinding puts it: "We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters."
The author of that statement is Peter Thiel. A big winner in the economy of the past generation, Thiel is a venture capitalist and self-styled libertarian deep thinker. He made his first pile in Paypal, then made additional fortunes backing LinkedIn and Facebook. Thiel's success comes at the forefront of an emerging entrepreneurial culture that constantly demands a Next Big Thing. Silicon Valley is full of 20-somethings (and teens) pitching their ideas, looking for investments from the likes of Thiel. Only a few succeed in attracting angel investors, who know that only one of their dozens of ventures needs to succeed before they've made their money back, many times over.
But even Thiel, as rich as he is, is unhappy. He wants transformative technology, not toys that flatter people into thinking that, if nothing else, they have a ton of friends. Thiel is, on the one hand, persuasive about how small we think today. On the other, he's an opportunistic embodiment of a billionaire who wants to be the hero of an Ayn Rand novel. His technological investments are geared toward projects that will benefit the super-rich: biological initiatives to "cure" aging and a "seasteading" venture that would build floating, self-sustaining cities in the middle of the ocean, beyond the reach of international law.
Packer's book is drawn largely from reporting he's published in The New Yorker. What makes The Unwinding so compelling is the cinematic cross-cutting between narratives. Packer, who has published two novels and a play in addition to his nonfiction work, admits to attempting a John Dos Passos-like tapestry effect with The Unwinding. Interspersed with biographical sketches of representative figures of our culture—Newt Gingrich, Sam Walton, Oprah Winfrey, Jay-Z, etc.—Packer traces the rising and (mostly) falling fortunes of a few key protagonists.
We spend a lot of time with Tammy, a black, working-class native of Youngstown, Ohio, who struggles to survive the death of the town's steel industry; Jeff, a Washington politico whose two decades of thankless toil for Joe Biden was a painful lesson in how thoroughly Wall Street has captured the federal government; and Tampa, Fla., an aspiring Great City built on junk credit that has one of the worst, most alienating urban designs in the country.
Many readers will be most riveted by the trials of Rockingham County, N.C., native Dean Price. Packer establishes Price's hardscrabble background, the scion of failing tobacco, religious nuttery and vicious racism. Price managed to escape the ignorance and violence of his upbringing, complete college and go into sales under the grip of the age-old American win-friends-and-influence-people-ism. After many setbacks, Price becomes an operator of truck stop mini-marts and a Bojangles. But he becomes disturbed by the fundamental unhealthiness of his business:
He was seeing beyond the surfaces of the land to its hidden truths. Some nights he sat up late on his front porch with a glass of Jack and listened to the trucks heading south on 220, carrying crates of live chickens to the slaughterhouses—always under cover of darkness, like a vast and shameful trafficking—chickens pumped full of hormones that left them too big to walk—and he thought how these same chickens might return from their destination as pieces of meat to the floodlit Bojangles up the hill from his house, and that meat would be drowned in the bubbling fryers by employees whose hatred of the job would leak into the cooked food, and that food would be served up and eaten by customers who would grow obese ...
Then Price discovers peak oil and biodiesel, a conversion that leads him to a union of the apocalyptic religion of his youth and the secular religion of business of his adulthood. His path takes him into insurgent politics, the flickering hopes of the Obama ascension, and even a memorable handshake with Mr. Yes We Can.
Even if The Unwinding is an astoundingly pessimistic vision of an America that no longer works, knowing that the likes of Tammy from Youngstown, Dean from North Carolina and others are among us gives us our last, best hope.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Don't stop believin'."