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Originally published Sunday, June 9, 2013 at 5:07 AM

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“The Unwinding”: the corrosive currents of recent U.S. history

In “The Unwinding,” New Yorker writer George Packer chronicles the last five years of American history, as recession and political paralysis have eroded faith in the future.

Special to The Seattle Times

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The book is neither partisan nor predictable. Should have been in the title of this... MORE


“The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America”

by George Packer

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 434 pp., $27

Whatever it is that’s happened in the past five years — recession, implosion, reckoning — there’s been plenty written about it, with all kinds of perspectives on our financial meltdown and ailing body politic.

But a hundred years from now, the first book people reach for to understand this era could be George Packer’s “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America,” a monumental work that is both intimate and sweeping.

By weaving portraits of people known and unknown, Packer dissects our unraveling and personalizes the toll. The casualties include the middle class and our country’s once unbending belief in the future.

The book is neither partisan nor predictable. Packer portrays Newt Gingrich as a repulsive man-child — “The boy who would seem like a nine-year-old at fifty seemed fifty years old at nine”— who poisoned our political discourse. But he’s just as unsparing with Joe Biden, a bullying ingrate described by one staffer as an “equal opportunity disappointer.”

Packer carves up Sam Walton — “He was so cheap that he kept the sign to as few letters as possible: the new store was called ‘Wal-Mart’” — as a predator who depressed wages and gutted downtowns. But he’s no more kind with Oprah Winfrey, depicted as a fabulist whose just-think-positive incantation can do more damage than good.

In the portraits of the people known, Packer’s writing dazzles. Here he is on Washington’s own Raymond Carver: “Ray was a drinker and a writer. The two had always gone along separate tracks. What the first self fled or wrecked or rued or resented, the second stared into high art.”

In the portraits of the lesser known, Packer’s reporting excels — and the book takes off, with a building anger at the failures of Wall Street and Washington, at bank deregulation, at an enervated Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and gutless Justice Department, at a U.S. Senate that is all talk. A staff writer at The New Yorker who has covered some of these topics in the magazine, Packer tells the story of America’s decay through a series of stand-ins: a Youngstown, Ohio, Rust Belt victim who is a supermarket cashier turned factory worker turned community organizer; a North Carolina dreamer/entrepreneur who sees biofuels as a way to reclaim the land and our values; and an Alabama native who becomes disillusioned while pinballing through the corridors of power.

What’s amazing about the book’s march — through foreclosures, bankruptcies and suicides, through the deaths of industries and the bursting of bubbles — is how Packer refuses to give in to abstraction.

The themes are universal but the stories personal. And Packer whips readers all over the place, from a Silicon Valley technology mogul to a Tampa family reduced to jobs at Wal-Mart (if that), from an Occupy Wall Street leader (although leader is not a word the movement would use) to a Wall Street trader.

The cumulative effect is extraordinary. The kind of “high art” that Carver reached with his fiction, Packer achieves here. Through his roving portraits, Packer also conveys what neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney could say in last year’s election: “Neither was willing to tell Americans that they were no longer exceptional but should try to be again.”

Ken Armstrong: A Seattle Times reporter, he is the co-author of “Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity,” winner of the Edgar Award for best fact crime book.

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