unwinding1The Unwinding
by George Packer (Togo 1982-83)
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$27.00
432 pages
2013

Reviewed by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991-93)

It seems unfair to criticize something for not being what it never intended to be.

Imagine Hemingway being criticized for not including an analysis of 1940s fishing yields in the Caribbean in The Old Man and the Sea. Or the Rolling Stones being rebuked for not slipping a violin concerto into Exile on Main Street. Or Georgia O’Keefe being taken to task for not depicting an occasional tractor or bulldozer or tomato soup can in her orchid series.

In his June 9 review of George Packer’s The Unwinding, David Brooks, in the New York Times Book Review, faults the author for failing to provide a “theoretical framework and worldview” that would explain the lives and situations Packer examines. Brooks, a Times op-ed columnist, compares The Unwinding to John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, noting the similarity in narrative technique between the books. (Like Dos Passos, Packer juxtaposes portraits of everyday people with brief biographies of the rich and famous.) In Dos Passos’s day, Brooks says, the “left had Marxism. It had a rigorous intellectual structure that provided an undergirding of society.” But today’s left, where Brooks places Packer, “no longer has Marxism or any other coherent intellectual structure.” This, says Brooks, undermines the purpose and power of The Unwinding.

In order to satisfy Brooks, Packer evidently would first have had to invent a “coherent intellectual structure” that everything in The Unwinding would be expected to illuminate. In other words, Packer needed to compose Das Kapital 2.0 so Brooks and likeminded readers would understand what in the world the author intended when he depicted both everyday Americans struggling to survive in a kaleidoscopically-changing economy and the wealthy and powerful (Newt Gingrich, Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell, Robert Rubin, Sam Walton) who had achieved success but often appeared indifferent and sometimes even hostile to the distress of their fellow citizens. Likewise, Packer would need a compelling philosophy or all-encompassing economic, political, or sociological theory to explain the failures of American institutions-the federal government and Wall Street in particular-in order to make the stories of people affected by these failures worthy of inclusion in a book.

I don’t believe Packer set out to be the second coming of Karl Marx just as the Rolling Stones didn’t set out to be the second coming of Brahms. Rather, in The Unwinding, I think Packer hoped to tell an epic story of the United States over the last thirty plus years, giving us an intimate look at a handful of Americans as they struggled against bruising economic forces. For instance, he allows us into these lives:

  1. Tammy Thomas’s. She’s a single mother from Youngstown, Ohio, who must steer her children past her hometown’s whirlpool of drugs even as she battles to stay employed in a freefalling Rust Belt economy.
  2. Dean Price’s. He’s a Southern entrepreneur who bets against oil-and pays a steep price.
  3. Jeff Connaughton’s. A devotee of Joe Biden, he remains faithful to his political hero, though with increasingly less idealism, even as Biden proves callous and insensitive. (Joe Biden fans beware: the vice-president comes across here as anything but admirable.)

Sprinkled amid these longer narratives, Packer includes snapshots of well-known figures, few of which are flattering. Packer told Jon Stewart in a recent Daily Show appearance that he didn’t want to interview his well-known “characters” because he was worried he would end up liking them, and his book needed villains. Packer’s contention is that the country’s political, business, and social elite, including Gingrich and Powell as well as Oprah and Jay Z, have failed everyday Americans thanks to their megalomania, selfishness, and lack of compassion, courage, and community spirit. (Somewhere, Karl Marx is nodding.)

Packer’s portrait of Walton, the Wal-Mart founder, is particularly harsh (fairly so, this reviewer would say). Only after Walton’s death, Packer writes, did the country understand the destruction Wal-Mart had wrought: “Over the years, America had become more like Wal-Mart. It had gotten cheap. Prices were lower, and wages were lower. There were fewer union factory jobs, and more part-time jobs as store greeters. The small towns where Mr. Sam had seen his opportunity were getting poorer…The hollowing out of the heartland was good for the company’s bottom line.”

It’s likely Marx would have had something to say about Wal-Mart. But if Packer doesn’t bombard us with economic theory or political rhetoric, it is, I imagine, because, like a novelist, he would prefer that we draw our own conclusions from the sweeping story he tells.

After reading The Unwinding, there is plenty one might conclude about the recent history of the United States, which has seen a devastating increase in the gap between the richest and poorest of its citizens and is flirting dangerously with the extinction of the middle class.

If The Unwinding contains a moral, it harkens back to the early days of this country’s conception: We either help each other and acknowledge that our individual survival and prosperity depend on our collective survival and prosperity or we shun any notion of community and its responsibilities, both economic and civic, and charge ahead like blind devotees of a mythic and stupid rugged individualism.

Or, as Ben Franklin put it: We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.

Mark Brazaitis is the author of The Incurables: Stories, winner of the 2012 Richard Sullivan Award from the University of Notre Dame Press, and four other books. His novel Julia & Rodrigo is forthcoming from Gival Press in October. He is a professor of English and directs the Creative Writing Program and the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop at West Virginia University.