Authors and Editors in Conversation
Alex Star: You’ve titled your book The Unwinding. What do you mean by that?
George Packer: It’s a word that a character in the book, Dean Price, once used. He was talking about the way that the economy in his part of the country — rural North Carolina, where tobacco and textiles used to be king — might revert to pre-industrial characteristics, with lots of small, local producers of food and energy taking the place of Bojangles’ restaurants and long-haul trucking.
As soon as he said it, the word resonated with me. But what I imagined wasn’t Dean’s future. I saw the present — a country where so many once-solid things were collapsing. Banks, governments, news organizations, small towns, main streets, shops, factories. You see it visibly all over the country, especially when you leave the prosperous coasts. And you find it across America in the unraveling of the fabric that connects people to one another. In short, “the unwinding” refers to the end of a deal Americans used to have with one another — a social contract.
Alex Star: Of course, there are many possible ways to write the end of that deal. Why did you choose to cover the dismantling of the social contract as you did – via biographies of figures known and unknown?
George Packer: I wanted to write a historical narrative about this unwinding — but not big history, conventional history, going from one major event and issue to the next. Instead, I wanted to convey what it has been like to be an American and live in this country during the years of my adulthood, the years since the late 1970s. I wanted to get at it from the inside out. And since the most powerful stories are often found in the lives of obscure people, I put those at the center of the book.
The three central characters are Dean Price, Tammy Thomas, and Jeff Connaughton. They are a diverse group in geography, class, race, and background, but they all live to the pulse of recent history. All three underwent a life change that set them off on a new course right around the time of the financial crisis.
Dean is a native son of the North Carolina tobacco country, one of the most traditional regions in the U.S. He built a chain of truck stops, and his spirit is entrepreneurial — he worships the self-made geniuses, from Edison and Ford to Steve Jobs, as well as the Emersonian spirit of self-reliance that became a popular American philosophy of success. You don’t meet many people in sophisticated urban centers who still believe in the old nineteenth-century virtues with Dean’s kind of faithful optimism. He’s also a wonderful talker in a particularly southern way. But over the past decade Dean has seen big business — oil companies, agribusiness, fast-food chains, big-box stores — grind down his region’s way of life and the values that go with it. He’s been brought close to financial ruin and, in the process, radicalized. He arrived, entirely on his own, at a new vision of prosperity rising out of the ruins of the old, and risked everything he had on it.
Tammy’s story is that of millions of Americans who have lived through deindustrialization in the Rust Belt. Like Dean, she’s spent her life in one place — Youngstown, Ohio — and she watched it collapse around her with the closing of the steel mills. The black community fell especially hard in Youngstown, but Tammy managed to hold down one of the last factory jobs while raising three kids on her own. This was remarkable enough, but in mid-life, after she lost her job, she remade herself into a community organizer, the same year a black community organizer became president. Unlike Dean, Tammy is less a dreamer than a survivor, but like Dean she took a step back from her life and came to a deeper understanding of the forces that made survival so hard.
Jeff Connaughton was on the winning side of the unwinding — a career political operative in Washington, first with Senator Joe Biden, then in the Clinton White House, then as a very successful lobbyist. The 2008 financial crisis was a turning point for him — it’s really the hinge in the story of almost every character and the book as a whole. He lost a lot of money, and went back into government to try to force some discipline on the banks that had brought the country to its knees. Instead, he found that those banks had staged a sort of takeover of the government. Jeff’s story is morally ambiguous: he was a creature of an increasingly corrupt political system, but eventually he had the wherewithal to see it clearly and try to reform it.
Alex Star: Why did you also include the stories of less obscure individuals, indeed very famous ones?
George Packer: You can’t write about America today without taking account of the power of money and fame and success. Celebrities have in some ways taken the place of institutions and occupy an outsized role in people’s imaginations. So I included biographical sketches of ten famous Americans, figures who both amplify and offset these characters’ lives.
The celebrity closest to Dean is Sam Walton, another small-town southerner. Walton’s was just the kind of success story that would have inspired Dean, but Dean came to hate Wal-Mart and what it did to the local economy. Walton represents the self-made spirit of the heartland, and also the destructive forces of consumer capitalism. Tammy has a counterpart in Oprah Winfrey, who also grew up with all the odds against her. But Oprah’s immense success gave her the view that inner goodness leads to the good life (related to Dean’s philosophy of success). Tammy has a more modest and realistic code: you do what you’re supposed to do. Oprah preaches attention to the self; Tammy’s sense of herself is completely tied to family and community. This is a recurring difference between the book’s more obscure characters and its famous ones.
The two figures closest to Jeff’s world are Newt Gingrich and Robert Rubin. In different ways each one represents the failure of important institutions and the elites who lead them. Those failures run right through the whole book. When American institutions were healthy, celebrities mattered less. In the unwinding, they offer tantalizing pictures of power and success that often turn out to be hollow at the core.
Alex Star: Your book portrays a country bedeviled by inequality and instability and an almost elemental unfairness. Of course, the years you cover were also years in which the country became more tolerant and inclusive of women, minorities and gays, and others. How do you understand the relationship between these two parallel stories? Did you choose to put more emphasis on one than the other?
George Packer: My book isn’t a complete history of our era, not by a long shot. Foreign policy is missing — so is sports. Nor is it an “issue” book. The Unwinding is an idiosyncratic narrative shaped by certain themes that preoccupy me. “Elemental unfairness” is a good term for them. I’m writing about the deep forces threatening the economic opportunity and national cohesion — the sense that there’s a place for everyone — that our democracy depends on. At the same time, the country is increasingly open to previously excluded groups. In a way, those two stories — greater social equality and economic inequality — are unrelated. There’s no reason why the fortunes of the middle and working class had to decline while prospects for women and minorities rose. They all could have improved together, which is what seemed to be happening in the late sixties/early seventies. Millions of women and members of minority groups belong to the class of Americans who have seen their lives and communities decline since the 1970s. And in the case of one of my characters — Peter Thiel, a brilliant and very wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor, who happens to be gay — his success had nothing to do with the struggle of homosexuals for greater equality.
Like almost everything else, inclusiveness divides the country into winners and losers. For those with the education, talent, and luck to take advantage, it’s been a boon. For those marooned in urban cores like Youngstown, rural backwaters like Rockingham County, North Carolina, and the new suburban slums such as those around Tampa, the lowering of barriers remains fairly theoretical. Social tolerance gives an idea of equality, which makes the reality of inequality all the more bitter. Jay-Z’s story tells you that anyone can go from the projects to the very top. Most people don’t.
Alex Star: Over the course of your career, you’ve written fiction, reportage, memoir and essays. Where does The Unwinding fit in this constellation of genres? And why, in a book defined in part by its unusual form and particular perspective on America, do you never write in the first person?
George Packer: Getting rid of the first person was a drastic thing to do. It was like trying to see if I could hit left-handed. To some extent this book submerges my natural voice. It uses indirection and impersonation. It’s more like a third-person novel (I published two of those in the 1990s) dominated by its characters — especially the obscure ones, but also the famous — whose thoughts and rhythms of speech and diction control the prose. But not completely; my point of view is here, but more implied than stated. And the effect was quite liberating. I got to write sentences I never would have written before, in a way that felt more free.
There was another reason for the change. The Unwinding takes on a huge subject — America since the 1970s — in an idiosyncratic way, moving back and forth chronologically between people and places, longer narratives and short biographical sketches. All of these elements add up to a kind of multi-perspectival history, as it’s lived and spoken and felt by individuals. Where would “I” fit in that? It would make the book too subjective, and its implied argument too obvious, maybe even banal. It would take away from the effect I’m after, like talking in the middle of a movie.
Alex Star: You also include collages of newspaper headlines and other cultural artifacts that may recall the newsreels in John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy. Was Dos Passos a model as you wrote? What relevance do you think he has today for writers of fiction or nonfiction alike?
George Packer: While you were editing the book we called those collages, more contemporarily, “mashups,” though eventually they took the form of news crawls. I assembled them to keep track of the collective American mind at key moments of the narrative — the headlines, speeches, songs, ads, fads, clichés. That was directly inspired by Dos Passos. More broadly, U.S.A. gave me an idea of history as a kaleidoscopic panorama spanning decades, but with the focus always tight and intimate, privileging the human face and voice. I’m not sure I could have had enough faith in the unusual form of The Unwinding to commit myself to it without Dos Passos as a precedent. I read The Big Money, the third novel of the trilogy, when I was fifteen, and I’ve been reading and admiring him ever since. Through most of his career Dos Passos was considered the equal of his friends Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but he fell out of fashion, partly because the characters in U.S.A. do not invite love or even much empathy, but also because Americans are not very interested in history. We worship the individual, but in U.S.A. Dos Passos makes history his central character. That might be his relevance for writers and readers today. As we try to figure out what’s happened to the country during our lifetimes, his novels are still there as an imaginative guide. And many of the national myths, obsessions, aspirations, and illusions — our American grandeur and squalor — remain the same.
George Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq, which received numerous prizes and was named one of the ten best books of 2005 by The New York Times Book Review. He is also the author of two novels, The Half Man and Central Square, and two other works of nonfiction, The Village of Waiting and Blood of the Liberals, which won the 2001 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. His play, Betrayed, ran in Manhattan for five months in 2008 and won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play. His most recent book is Interesting Times: Writings from a Turbulent Decade. You can connect with him on Facebook.
Alex Star is a senior editor at FSG.