George Packer Shreds Rubin in Portrait of U.S. Decline

Scattered among the profiles that make up most of “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America” are nine collage-poems in which the author, George Packer, tries to capture the cacophony of American voices from a given year.

“1978,” for example, starts with nuggets from a speech by Jimmy Carter and lyrics from the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated.”

Though I don’t really think these experiments fly, I wouldn’t call them self-indulgent. Far from it. They come out of the same ambition that makes the rest of the book so splendid.

A slier element in Packer’s portrait of American decline is 10 swift sketches of the famous (Oprah Winfrey, Sam Walton, Jay-Z), drawn from published sources and often written in arsenic. It takes him just six pages to shred Colin Powell, shanghaied into supporting a dubious war; eight to fix Robert Rubin as a lasting symbol of Wall Street fecklessness.

But most of the reporting is original and goes into multipart profiles of places (Tampa, Silicon Valley) and people, three in particular. One is a political animal, Jeff Connaughton, an Alabamian who went to Washington in 1987 to work on Joe Biden’s presidential campaign and stayed there, eventually raking in millions as a lobbyist.

Epic Failure

Over time he lost his faith in the system, especially once he beheld President Obama’s financial team, “all implicated in an epic failure -- now hired to sort out the ruins.

“How could they not see things the way of the bankers with whom they’d studied and worked and ate and drunk and gotten rich? Social promotion and conflict of interest were built into the soul of the meritocracy.”

Tammy Thomas was a blue-collar worker in Youngstown, Ohio, who watched the steel mills abandon the city and the city fall apart. But she didn’t. After 19 years of grinding factory hours -- “It was a paycheck, a decent paycheck, and that saved her so she could save her kids” -- she was jobless.

But then someone recognized a spark in her and hired her as a community organizer. “She had never been around people who were so passionate about their work. There was so much more to life than she had known.” She turned out to be a natural leader and, fired up, she found a new life.

Packer really believes in the American promise, and so does the figure he opens and closes his book with: “The country was stuck and no politician could fix that. It was going to take an entrepreneur.”

Biofuel Promoter

The man is Dean Price, born and raised in North Carolina, a die-hard hoper without a shred of cynicism. His passion -- it took him a while to find one -- is biofuels.

Over seven chapters Packer follows Price through one harsh failure after another until, finally, this dogged optimist finds a path to success -- maybe. His capacity for faith is inspiring.

And so is Packer’s. The author’s sweetness and his decency shine through his darkest passages. What’s most striking about “The Unwinding,” given the sad stories and demoralizing figures it compiles, is its lack of pessimism.

Packer notes on the first page that unwindings happen in the U.S. “every generation or two,” citing the initial collapse of the Republic into factions, the Civil War and the Depression. Then he adds: “Each decline brought renewal, each implosion released energy, out of each unwinding came a new cohesion.”

He doesn’t go so far as to tell us it’s going to be all right. He doesn’t have to. By choosing the people he has to represent the state of the nation as it is now, he’s shown us everything we need to know about his heart and his hopes.

“The Unwinding” is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (434 pages, $27). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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