Not many writers could burrow into the complicated headspaces of public figures as varied as Newt Gingrich and Jay-Z, capturing both men’s charms and weaknesses with lacerating truth. Then again, most writers wouldn’t attempt a nation-defining tapestry as intricate and ambitious as George Packer’s “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America,” an addictive account of American institutions unraveled by money, power, politics and technology over the past three decades.
Gingrich and Jay-Z are two of the more well-known touchstones in Packer’s tome – others include Raymond Carver, Sam Walton and Elizabeth Warren – but the bulk of his book chronicles the people and places that don’t make the nightly news, from the depressed housing market of Greater Tampa to the inner sanctums of Silicon Valley and Occupy Wall Street. The stories of three Americans form the backbone of Packer’s lyrical body – a Joe Biden political aide-turned lobbyist, a factory worker-turned-activist, and a convenience store owner-turned-biodiesel entrepreneur – and Packer frequently revisits their paths toward enlightenment in the great unwinding.
A New Yorker staff writer by day, Packer will appear at the Chapman Conference Center at Miami-Dade College (245 N.E. Fourth St., Miami) at 11:30 a.m. this Sunday, Nov. 24 to discuss “The Unwinding,” as part of the Miami Book Fair International. For information, call 305/237-3258 or visit miamibookfair.com
Your book is such an ambitious undertaking, with so many different tentacles. Did the project take you in any directions, literary or geographic, that you didn’t expect?
Absolutely. I began with a more conventional (though still ambitious) idea: a book that would look at different American institutions, such as government, corporations, media, and what caused them to deteriorate over the past few decades. It would have a more explicit argument, covering fairly familiar recent history. But I kept getting restless with this idea, and pulled away toward specific places and people around the American landscape. Finally I got rid of the original concept and turned to a more innovative literary model (with a glance back at the great U.S.A. trilogy of John Dos Passos), one that would allow me to tell individual stories with an intimate voice, while orchestrating them into a large choral piece of American life. This turn was nerve-wracking in the extreme, but ultimately liberating.
How did you settle on the Americans – Tammy Thomas, Dean Price and Jeff Connaughton – as people whose narratives were significant enough to carry through the entire book? And did you consider and interview others before settling on them?
Partly by design, partly by serendipity. I wanted to look at centers of power like Washington, Wall Street and Silicon Valley, as well as more forgotten places like rural America, the Rust Belt and the new exurban slums of the Sun Belt. Dean Price made a brief appearance in a 2010 piece I wrote about how Obama’s first year looked from the point of view of a congressional district in southern Virginia. I found him to be such a compelling, original, complex person, and from a part of the country (the Piedmont) with a rich history leading to hard times today, that I knew he could be a main character. So Dean became the first.
I met Jeff Connaughton while working on a New Yorker piece about insider trading, and his biography and outlook perfectly matched the time frame and concerns of the book: a career Washington operative who went from Joe Biden’s staff to the Clinton White House to lobbying, then back into government after the financial crisis in order to help enact serious Wall Street reform, only to leave government and Washington altogether in disillusionment.
I found Tammy Thomas more deliberately: I wanted one of the three main people to be a woman, and I wanted to write about what’s happened in the Rust Belt. I did some research and asked around, and her name came up a couple of times, so I went out to Youngstown to meet her. This was very late in the process, and I didn’t have any time to lose. But in her case, and in Dean’s and Jeff’s, there’s something beyond the resonance of their stories with the book’s themes, something having to do with their own personal qualities–candor, depth of insight, a penchant for dramatic change, commitment to a vision–that is the real sine qua non of their inclusion. I interviewed a few people who ended up not appearing, or not playing a large role. But very few. The reporting turned out to be pretty efficient.
Adam Gopnik wrote a New Yorker piece in 2011 on the surge of “declinist” literature, citing recent works by Niall Ferguson, Thomas Friedman and others, that chronicle an America in decline. Do you feel your book belongs in the genre?
It might, but I don’t want it to. The term sounds too dismal, and a little reductive. It doesn’t convey the energy and ingenuity and resilience of Americans like Dean, Tammy and Jeff. In general I wanted to avoid anything resembling a book about the 10 things wrong with America and the 10 ways to fix them. But anyone who’s paying attention knows that America has been enduring a prolonged period of economic stagnation and political dysfunction. In its implications, my book is all about that. Whether this period is cyclical or terminal I’ll leave to the pundits, and to historians of the future.
In the pieces on public figures, your writing style is at times markedly different from the other narratives in the book. There is sharp criticism written between the lines, and in some of the cases, it’s clear that you considered them antagonists in the unwinding. But I think you still effectively wrote these profiles using their voices … what was it like immersing yourself into the headspace of somebody like Robert Rubin or Andrew Breitbart?
Famous Americans have a tendency to become inhuman and rather godlike, especially in an age of celebrity-worship like this. Many of the ones I wrote about (Oprah, Sam Walton, Newt Gingrich, Jay-Z) emerged from the most obscure backgrounds and reinvented themselves, eventually becoming brands and building empires that sank into a kind of decadence. Unlike with Dean or Tammy, I didn’t want to humanize them–it’s too late for that. I wanted to convey their meaning in American life. So I decided not to try to interview any of them–I wouldn’t have gotten much out of these very P.R.-proficient, heavily protected people. Instead, I turned to their own words–interviews, articles, songs, and especially their autobiographies. Each of them introduced a particular vocabulary that changed the culture (Oprah’s mix of confession and uplift, Gingrich’s toxic demonizations, Breitbart’s inflated digital posing, Alice Waters’ culinary moralism). So the rhythms and diction change sharply between the profiles. And, you’re right, in most of them there’s an ironic distance that allows the reader to hear things in a way that the subjects don’t or can’t.
Did you walk away from this book with a different perception of Joe Biden then you had previously?
Biden was Jeff Connaughton’s boss, and–by Jeff’s lights–a selfish and bullying one. I don’t know that this reveals anything fatal about Biden. To me it’s a story of Washington, where almost everything is instrumental and politicians become the masks they wear. It’s surprising, but probably shouldn’t be, when you find out that a senator you despise is actually a generous person, or one you admire turns out to be a jerk to his staff.
Have you received blowback from anyone you wrote about who felt slighted?
No. Not yet anyway. And that’s kind of amazing to me. I gave Dean, Tammy, Jeff and a couple of others advance looks at their sections of the book. Partly to make sure everything was correct, but also to give them a chance to keep me from exposing something they really might regret having told me. This isn’t something I do in the normal course of my journalistic work, but I felt I owed it to these people, most of whom were inexperienced with writers and gave me an astonishing degree of trust. As things turned out, the book became better for it. I haven’t heard from any of the public figures. If they know about the book and are unhappy (or happy) with it, they’ve kept it to themselves.