The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

By George Packer, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27, 448 pages)

If you are looking for a book to help you cut through the fog of rhetoric and commentary on the current state of American society, look no further than George Packer’s brilliant portrait of our country’s stumbling path over the past 40 years, The Unwinding.

Packer builds this novelistic account around the lives of three disparate characters, all born in the 1960s. Dean Price, a native of North Carolina’s Piedmont region and an entrepreneur, “an optimist, a latter day Horatio Alger,” pursues his obsession with the development of alternative fuels in the face of financial ruin. Jeff Connaughton is a lawyer-lobbyist and Washington insider who, as an idealistic Alabama college student, attaches himself to the rising career of Joe Biden.

But over a generation in politics, he becomes “radicalized by a stunning realization that our government has been taken over by a financial elite that runs the government for the plutocracy.” Tammy Thomas, an African-American woman born in Youngstown a decade before the collapse of the city’s steel industry, gives birth to her first child at age 16, and in middle age, finds her calling as a community organizer, fighting to bring what’s left of her home town back to life. Early in the book, Packer reveals why he’s chosen to ground his story in these personal narratives: “In the unwinding,” he observes, “everything changes and nothing lasts, except for the voices, open, sentimental, angry, matter-of-fact; inflected with borrowed ideas, God, TV and the dimly remembered past.”

Over these engrossing life stories, Packer layers accounts of two starkly contrasting regions – glittering, vibrant Silicon Valley (seen chiefly through the eyes of Peter Thiel, an intellectually provocative libertarian, gay, venture capitalist whose original $500,000 stake in Facebook turned into a $1.5 billion windfall) and grim, sprawling Tampa, Ground Zero of the mortgage foreclosure crisis, where Packer introduces everyone from desperate victims of the real estate bubble to an activist attorney battling in what became a “judicial stockyard” to help an Indian immigrant hold onto her hotel and keep a man dying of cancer in his home. Packer traces the path to activism of a Florida housewife turned Tea Party member and the brief flourishing of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement, dramatically contrasting responses to perceived powerlessness.

In all this, he operates flawlessly as a nearly invisible narrator, drawing upon hundreds of interviews with Price, Connaughton, Thomas and others to capture the stew of rage, bewilderment, resignation and frustration that pervades our national psyche. There is an inescapable sense in these pages that something has gone terribly off the track, most dramatically in the Great Recession that began in 2008; that the institutions undergirding our prosperity for half a century – business, government, law most prominent among them – are failing and that those responsible for our current predicament somehow have avoided accountability for their negligent, and often criminal, conduct. There’s also a feeling, as one Tampa resident puts it, that millions of Americans have fallen into “a non-climbable-out-of rut,” that we’re all operating without a net, too many of us only a short fall from oblivion.

To add color to the dominant narrative, Packer offers brief profiles of some of the luminaries of our time. Their tone ranges from caustic (Oprah Winfrey, Sam Walton and former Citigroup chairman Robert Rubin) to admiring (Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren) to bemused (Jay-Z). Taken together, they illuminate the cult of celebrity that has come to dominate our culture. But President Obama and the leaders of Congress, whose wearying gridlock has taken on a permanent aspect, are barely present in these pages.

Another striking feature of the book consists of collages of newspaper headlines, memorable quotes, story fragments and song lyrics of nine selected years between 1978 and 2012. These materials evoke vivid memories and ground Packer’s account in the larger chronology.

While we last encounter a cynical Jeff Connaughton far from Washington and writing a book entitled The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins, the stories of re-invention and renewal in the lives of Price and Thomas end on an optimistic note, even if we realize it may not be the final one of their respective songs. Packer refuses to surrender to pessimism, noting that “there have been unwindings every generation or two” and that “each decline brought renewal, each implosion released energy, out of each unwinding came a new cohesion.” All we can do when we finish this extraordinary book is cling to the hope that this time won’t be different.