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An eyewitness account of the last 40 years of American history.

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New AmericaThe Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer

This is the book you read if you want an eyewitness account of the last 40 years of American history, leading specifically to the Great Recession and told from the viewpoint of the people who lived it. You could teach American History 102 directly from its pages and your students would learn a hell of a lot more than from some dusty old textbook.

Packer alternates his narrative among half a dozen Americans, interspersed with profiles of people you all know, like Newt Gingrich and Oprah and Jay-Z, and towns like Tampa, which was ground zero for the bad mortgage boom and bust. But principally we’re seeing what happened to us through the eyes of two white southern men and a black woman from Youngstown, Ohio. What follows is the single most engrossing nonfiction read I have held in my hands since, since, hell, I don’t know when.

Part of it is that it is so very well written. Packer is that perfect journalist who never lets himself get in the way of the story, and certainly never in the way of the people he is writing about. (There might be one place where his editorial voice obtrudes, but I’ll let you find that for yourself, and I might be wrong anyway. I hope I am.)

The people he writes about speak in their own voices, and believe me when I tell you, you will feel their pain when Jeff, a die-hard Biden man, is totally disillusioned by the discovery that politics can get nothing good done for the American people. When Dean, who I swear is the original American dreamer, believes every word of every self-help, get-rich book he ever reads and works so hard to make his big ideas real. When Tammy, who watches Youngstown literally dissolve from a functional city into a deserted wasteland around her when the steel mills shut down, finds her voice, not to mention a job, with a community action group and organizes who’s left to save the city from completely disappearing.

There are many other narrators, including a New York City banker, a Silicon Valley libertarian billionaire and a dirt-poor Floridian couple existing on a Walmart paycheck, and more, all of them memorable. What is most amazing is the juxtapostion–the libertarian billionaire thinks the whole constitution should be trashed and we should start over, and the Floridian dirt-poor couple think they’re fine, just fine.

“It’s the price of freedom,” Dennis said. “I can come home, I have a bed to sleep on. I have food, a soda to drink, or tea–I’m fine. I wish I could have more, like everybody, but it’s never going to be perfect as long as the world runs the way it runs and people make the decisions they make.”

It was the second-to-last day of August. While the Republicans concluded their $123 million convention fifteen minutes away, the Hartzells, having paid all their bills, had five dollars left till the first of September.

The profile on Colin Powell will make you want to simultaneously weep for him and smack him upside his head, and the profile on Robert Rubin will leave you feeling no less than homicidal. I probably should warn you, if you’re not into bleak, you shouldn’t read any further, and you definitely shouldn’t read this book. The New York Times said “it begins like a horror novel,” and they’re not wrong. But man, it’s good. The only thing I don’t like about it is that other than Peter Thiel (the Silicon Valley dot.com billionaire) and one poor Seattle guy who goes east to join Occupy Wall Street and winds up homeless, Packer doesn’t really acknowledge that there’s a whole ‘nother half a nation over here on this side of the Mississippi.

Here’s what he left me with.

If most of the money in the US is controlled by the top 1 percent, and if money now buys government policy, it follows that the 99 percent, the majority who have no ability to write those kinds of checks…well, then, majority no longer rules in the US.

The rich will continue to get richer, because they can buy off Congress and the President, so that no banker goes to jail for bankrupting the nation into the Great Recession, because bankers can buy their own legal absolution, sort of like sinners bought indulgences for absolution from the Catholic Church. The middle class, with no voice in government because they can’t afford it, will continue to get poorer and before very long there won’t be anyone left in this country who can build a car or fix a toilet or program a computer. We can flip burgers at McDonald’s and greet people at Walmart and stock shelves at Costco, and we’ll probably have to do all three of those jobs just to get by. The Hartzells in Tampa would be glad to, if anyone else would hire them.

But don’t tell that to Dean and Tammy and Jeff. They still believe in the dream. An informative, enlightening, searing read, and highly, highly recommended.

PS–I never would have read this book if it weren’t for the Homer Public Library’s “Read 15 in ’15” program. The Unwinding was on their list, found here: http://www.cityofhomer-ak.gov/library…

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