The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

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9780374102418: The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

The 2013 National Book Award Winner

A New York Times Bestseller
Selected by New York Times' critic Dwight Garner as a Favorite Book of 2013
One of Amazon's Best Books of 2013
A New York Times Notable Book of 2013
A Washington Post Best Political Book of 2013
An NPR Best Book of 2013
A New Republic Best Book of 2013
One of Publishers Weekly's Best Nonfiction Books of 2013
A Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book of 2013

A riveting examination of a nation in crisis, from one of the finest political journalists of our generation

American democracy is beset by a sense of crisis. Seismic shifts during a single generation have created a country of winners and losers, allowing unprecedented freedom while rending the social contract, driving the political system to the verge of breakdown, and setting citizens adrift to find new paths forward. In The Unwinding, George Packer, author of The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq, tells the story of the United States over the past three decades in an utterly original way, with his characteristically sharp eye for detail and gift for weaving together complex narratives.
The Unwinding journeys through the lives of several Americans, including Dean Price, the son of tobacco farmers, who becomes an evangelist for a new economy in the rural South; Tammy Thomas, a factory worker in the Rust Belt trying to survive the collapse of her city; Jeff Connaughton, a Washington insider oscillating between political idealism and the lure of organized money; and Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire who questions the Internet's significance and arrives at a radical vision of the future. Packer interweaves these intimate stories with biographical sketches of the era's leading public figures, from Newt Gingrich to Jay-Z, and collages made from newspaper headlines, advertising slogans, and song lyrics that capture the flow of events and their undercurrents.
The Unwinding portrays a superpower in danger of coming apart at the seams, its elites no longer elite, its institutions no longer working, its ordinary people left to improvise their own schemes for success and salvation. Packer's novelistic and kaleidoscopic history of the new America is his most ambitious work to date.

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About the Author:

George Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq, which received several 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, Blood of the Liberals, which won the 2001 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, and The Village of Waiting. His play, Betrayed, ran off-Broadway for five months in 2008 and won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play. His recent books include Interesting Times: Writings from a Turbulent Decade. He lives in Brooklyn.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

No one can say when the unwinding began—when the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way. Like any great change, the unwinding began at countless times, in countless ways—and at some moment the country, always the same country, crossed a line of history and became irretrievably different.

If you were born around 1960 or afterward, you have spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding. You watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape—the farms of the Carolina Piedmont, the factories of the Mahoning Valley, Florida subdivisions, California schools. And other things, harder to see but no less vital in supporting the order of everyday life, changed beyond recognition— ways and means in Washington caucus rooms, taboos on New York trading desks, manners and morals everywhere. When the norms that made the old institutions useful began to unwind, and the leaders abandoned their posts, the Roosevelt Republic that had reigned for almost half a century came undone. The void was filled by the default force in American life, organized money.

The unwinding is nothing new. There have been unwindings every generation or two: the fall to earth of the Founders’ heavenly Republic in a noisy marketplace of quarrelsome factions; the war that tore the United States apart and turned them from plural to singular; the crash that laid waste to the business of America, making way for a democracy of bureaucrats and everymen. Each decline brought renewal, each implosion released energy, out of each unwinding came a new cohesion.

The unwinding brings freedom, more than the world has ever granted, and to more kinds of people than ever before—freedom to go away, freedom to return, freedom to change your story, get your facts, get hired, get fired, get high, marry, divorce, go broke, begin again, start a business, have it both ways, take it to the limit, walk away from the ruins, succeed beyond your dreams and boast about it, fail abjectly and try again. And with freedom the unwinding brings its illusions, for all these pursuits are as fragile as thought balloons popping against circumstances. Winning and losing are all- American games, and in the unwinding winners win bigger than ever, floating away like bloated dirigibles, and losers have a long way to fall before they hit bottom, and sometimes they never do.

This much freedom leaves you on your own. More Americans than ever before live alone, but even a family can exist in isolation, just managing to survive in the shadow of a huge military base without a soul to lend a hand. A shiny new community can spring up overnight miles from anywhere, then fade away just as fast. An old city can lose its industrial foundation and two-thirds of its people, while all its mainstays—churches, government, businesses, charities, unions—fall like building flats in a strong wind, hardly making a sound.

Alone on a landscape without solid structures, Americans have to improvise their own destinies, plot their own stories of success and salvation. A North Carolina boy clutching a Bible in the sunlight grows up to receive a new vision of how the countryside could be resurrected. A young man goes to Washington and spends the rest of his career trying to recall the idea that drew him there in the first place. An Ohio girl has to hold her life together as everything around her falls apart, until, in middle age, she finally seizes the chance to do more than survive.

As these obscure Americans find their way in the unwinding, they pass alongside new monuments where the old institutions once stood—the outsized lives of their most famous countrymen, celebrities who only grow more exalted as other things recede. These icons sometimes occupy the personal place of house hold gods, and they offer themselves as answers to the riddle of how to live a good or better life.

In the unwinding, everything changes and nothing lasts, except for the voices, American voices, open, sentimental, angry, matter-of-fact; inflected with borrowed ideas, God, TV, and the dimly remembered past—telling a joke above the noise of the assembly line, complaining behind window shades drawn against the world, thundering justice to a crowded park or an empty chamber, closing a deal on the phone, dreaming aloud late at night on a front porch as trucks rush by in the darkness.

 

 


DEAN PRICE


At the turn of the millennium, when he was in his late thirties, Dean Price had a dream. He was walking to his minister’s house on a hard-surface road, and it veered off and became a dirt road, and that road veered off again and became another dirt road, with tracks where wagon wheels had worn it bare, but the grass between the tracks grew chest high, as if it had been a long time since anybody had gone down the road. Dean walked along one of the wagon tracks holding his arms out spread-eagle and felt the grass on either side hitting the underneath of his arms. Then he heard a voice—it came from within, like a thought: “I want you to go back home, and I want you to get your tractor, and I want you to come back here and bush-hog this road, so that others can follow where it’s been traveled down before. You will show others the way. But it needs to be cleared again.” Dean woke up in tears. All his life he had wondered what he was put on earth for, while going in circles like a rudderless ship. He didn’t know what the dream meant, but he believed that it contained his calling, his destiny.

At the time, Dean had just gotten into the convenience store business, which was no calling at all. It would be another five years before he would find one. He had pale freckled skin and black hair, with dark eyes that crinkled up when he smiled or laughed his high-pitched giggle. He got the coloring from his father and the good looks from his mother. He’d been chewing Levi Garrett tobacco since age twelve, and he spoke with the soft intensity of a crusader who never stopped being a country boy. His manner was gentle, respectful, with a quality of refinement that made the men drinking vodka out of plastic cups down at the local Moose Lodge question whether Dean could properly be called a redneck. From childhood on, his favorite Bible verse was Matthew 7:7: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” What he sought his whole life was independence—especially financial independence. His greatest fears, which haunted him all his life, were poverty and failure. He came by them naturally.

His grandparents on both sides had been tobacco farmers, and so had their grandparents, and their grandparents, back to the eighteenth century, all of them on the same few square miles of Rockingham County, North Carolina. They all had Scotch-Irish names that fit neatly on a tombstone: Price, Neal, Hall. And they were all poor. “It’s like if I were to walk down to the creek, I’m going to wear a path,” Dean said. “And every day I’m going to go the same way. That’s how the roads in this country were built, basically. The people that built the roads followed the animals’ paths. And once that path is set, it takes a tremendous amount of effort and energy to take another path. Because you get in that set pattern of thinking, and it’s passed down generation to generation to generation.”

When Dean was a boy, tobacco grew fencepost to fencepost. From April till October you could smell it all over Rockingham County. He was raised in Madison, forty minutes’ drive up Route 220 from Greensboro, and though the Prices lived in town, Dean’s real life was spent out on the tobacco farm of his grandfather Norfleet Price. Norfleet got his name when his daddy, Dean’s great-grandfather, brought a load of tobacco on a two-horse wagon to Winston-Salem, where a man by that last name gave him a very good price. Dean’s father was born on the family land, in a clapboard shack with a front porch, at the edge of a clearing in the hardwood trees. A few feet away was the tobacco barn, a cabin of oak logs cross-stacked with dovetail joints, which Norfleet built with an ax. When Dean was a boy, during the late-summer days when the bright leaf tobacco was primed and hung in the barn for flue curing, he would beg to be allowed to stay there overnight with his grandfather and wake up every hour or two to check that none of the tobacco leaves had fallen into the flames of the oil fire. Priming was backbreaking work, but he loved the smell of tobacco, the big yellowing leaves that grew heavy as leather on stalks four feet high, the way his hands were stained black with sticky tar during the priming, the rhythm of looping the leaves through the stringer and hanging them in bundles like dried flounder from tobacco sticks across the rafters in the barn, the family togetherness. The Prices raised their own meat and grew their own vegetables and got their buttermilk from a lady with a milk cow down the road. School was delayed if the crop came in late, and in the early fall the auction warehouses in Madison burst into life with the harvest jubilee and the brass band parades, a celebration for families that now had their cash for the year, leading up to the holiday feasts. Dean thought that he would grow up to be a tobacco farmer and raise his kids the same way.

Dean’s best friend was his grandfather. Norfleet Price cut wood until the fall before he died, at age eighty-nine, in 2001. Near the end Dean visited him in the rest home and found him strapped to a wheelchair. “Hoss, you got your pocketknife?” his grandfather said.

“Pa, I can’t do that.”

Norfleet wanted to be cut out of the wheelchair. He lasted just a month and a half in the rest home. He was buried in the Price family plot, on a gentle rise in the red clay fields. Norfleet had always worked two or three jobs to get away from his wife, but the name Ruth was carved right next to his on the same headstone, waiting for the body and date of death.

Dean’s father had a chance to break the spell of the family’s poverty thinking. Harold Dean Price, called Pete, was bright and liked to read. Three blank pages at the back of his copy of Merriam-Webster’s dictionary were filled with handwritten definitions of words like “obtuse,” “obviate,” “transpontine,” “miscegenation,” “simulacrum,” “pejorative.” He was a good talker, a fervent hard-shell Baptist, and a bitter racist. Once, Dean visited the civil rights museum in the old Woolworth’s building in downtown Greensboro, where the first sit-ins took place at the lunch counter in 1960. There was a blown-up picture of the four black students from North Carolina A&T walking out onto the street past a mob of white youths who stared them down—hot rods with their hands in their pockets, T-shirts and rolled-up jeans, slicked-back hair, cigarettes hanging from angry mouths. That was Dean’s father. He hated the defiance of the civil rights people, though he never felt that way about Charlie and Adele Smith, the black tenant farmers on the Price land who took care of him when Dean’s grandmother was working at the mill. They were kindhearted and full of humor and understood their place in the scheme of things.

Pete Price met Barbara Neal at a local dance hall and married her in 1961, the year he graduated from Western Carolina College—the first person in his family to get that far. Harold Dean Price II was born in 1963, followed by three sisters. The family moved into a small brick house in Madison, around the corner from the Sharp and Smith tobacco warehouse. Madison and its neighbor Mayodan were textile towns, and in the sixties and seventies the mills had jobs for any young man coming out of high school who wanted one, and if you had a college degree you could take your pick. The brick storefronts on Main Street—pharmacies and haberdasheries and furniture stores and luncheonettes—were full of shoppers, especially on days when the textile warehouses held their sales. “Our country probably prospered as much as it’s ever going to prosper, right there in that era,” Dean said. “They had cheap energy, they had oil in the ground, they had working farms in the surrounding countryside, they had a people that didn’t mind working, they knew what work was about. There was money to be made.”

Dean’s father went to work for the big DuPont plant that manufactured nylon up in Martinsville, just across the Virginia state line. In the late sixties, he fell for the era’s version of a snake oil salesman in the person of Glenn W. Turner, the semiliterate son of a South Carolina sharecropper, who wore shiny three-piece suits and calfskin boots and spoke with the bad lisp of a harelip. In 1967, Turner started a company, Koscot Interplanetary, that sold cosmetics distributorships for five thousand dollars apiece, with the promise of a finder’s fee for every new subfranchisee that the distributor signed up. His followers were also lured into purchasing a black briefcase full of Glenn W. Turner motivational cassette tapes, called “Dare to Be Great,” that went for up to five thousand dollars, with a similar view to getting rich off selling the rights to sell the program. The Prices paid for a distributorship and hosted rousing “Dare to Be Great” parties at their house in Madison: a movie projector showed a film on Turner’s rags-to-riches life story, then the prospects shouted Turner lines about standing on your tiptoes and reaching for the stars. By 1971, “Dare to Be Great” had swept through blue-collar neighborhoods across the country, and Turner was profiled in Life magazine. Then he was investigated for running a pyramid scheme and ultimately served five years in prison, and the Prices lost their money.

In the early seventies, Pete Price got a job as a supervisor at the Duke Energy power station in Belews Creek. After that, he became a vice president at Gem-Dandy in Madison, which made men’s accessories like suspenders for socks. Later still, he was a shift supervisor at the Pine Hall brickyard, on the Dan River near Mayodan. But every time, he got fired by a boss he considered less intelligent than himself, or, more likely, he quit. Quitting became a habit, “just like a crease in your britches,” Dean said. “Once that crease is there it’s virtually impossible to get it out. That’s the way it was with failure to him, and you could not get it out of him. He thought it, he breathed it, he lived it.” The crease started on the Price tobacco farm, where Dean’s father received a disadvantaged piece of land that had no road frontage. Dean’s uncles ended up doing much better in farming. He also suffered from little man’s disease—he stood five seven and a half—and it didn’t help that he lost his hair early. But the biggest failure came in the work that meant the most to Pete Price.

Decades later, Dean kept a black-and-white picture in a frame on his fireplace mantel. A boy with a bowl of shiny black hair cut straight above his eyes, wearing a dark suit with narrow pants that were too short for him, was squinting in the sunlight and hugging a Bible against his chest with both arms, as if for protection. Next to him stood a little girl in a lace-collared dress. It was April 6, 1971. Dean was a few weeks shy of eight, and he was about to give his life to Jesus and be saved. During the seventies, Dean’s father had a series of small churches in little towns, and in each church his dogmatism and rigidity created a rift in the congregation. Each time, the church members voted on whether to keep him as their preacher, and sometimes they went for him and sometimes against him, but he always ended up leaving (for he would get restless, he wanted to be a Jerry Falwell, leading a church that had thousan...

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Book Description FSG. 1 Cloth(s), 2013. hard. Book Condition: New. (Winner of the 2013 National Book Award for Nonfiction, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and an NPR Best Book of the Year) American democracy is beset by a sense of crisis, warns New Yorker staff writer George Packer in this remarkable, eye-opening history. Seismic shifts have created a country of economic winners and losers, allowing unprecedented freedom for some while tearing up the social contract that said all hard-working Americans have a place in our society, and driving the political system to the verge of breakdown. Along with the personal stories of a biodiesel entrepreneur, a former factory worker, a Washington insider, and a Silicon Valley billionaire, Packer includes shorter sketches of such influential Americans as Newt Gingrich, Oprah Winfrey, Raymond Carver, Sam Walton, Colin Powell, Alice Waters, Andrew Breitbart, and Elizabeth Warren. This kaleidoscopic history depicts a superpower in danger of coming apart at the seams, its elites no longer elite, its institutions no longer working, its ordinary people left to improvise their own schemes for success and salvation in the absence of local businesses, unions, and public schools. "[The book] hums—with sorrow, with outrage and with compassion. Packer's gifts are Steinbeckian in the best sense of that term. [He has] written something close to a nonfiction masterpiece."—NYTimes"A professional work of journalism that also happens to be more intimate and textured—and certainly more ambitious—than most contemporary works of U.S. fiction dare to be. What distinguishes The Unwinding is the fullness of Packer's portraits, his willingness to show his subjects' human desires and foibles, and to give each of his subjects a fully throated voice."—LATimes"Though The Unwinding is manifestly an homage to the U.S.A. trilogy of John Dos Passos, Packer attempts something far more ambitious and original. The book, an epic retelling of American history from 1978 to 2012, is a kind of fantasia—a set of variations on themes without the support of an overarching narrative. This is a brilliant and innovative book that transcends journalism to become literature.—Bookmarks Magazine 435. Bookseller Inventory # 72532

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Book Description Farrar Straus Giroux, United States, 2013. Hardback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. The 2013 National Book Award Winner A New York Times Bestseller Selected by New York Times critic Dwight Garner as a Favorite Book of 2013 One of Amazon s Best Books of 2013 A New York Times Notable Book of 2013 A Washington Post Best Political Book of 2013 An NPR Best Book of 2013 A New Republic Best Book of 2013 One of Publishers Weekly s Best Nonfiction Books of 2013 A Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book of 2013 A riveting examination of a nation in crisis, from one of the finest political journalists of our generation American democracy is beset by a sense of crisis. Seismic shifts during a single generation have created a country of winners and losers, allowing unprecedented freedom while rending the social contract, driving the political system to the verge of breakdown, and setting citizens adrift to find new paths forward. In The Unwinding, George Packer, author of The Assassins Gate: America in Iraq, tells the story of the United States over the past three decades in an utterly original way, with his characteristically sharp eye for detail and gift for weaving together complex narratives. The Unwinding journeys through the lives of several Americans, including Dean Price, the son of tobacco farmers, who becomes an evangelist for a new economy in the rural South; Tammy Thomas, a factory worker in the Rust Belt trying to survive the collapse of her city; Jeff Connaughton, a Washington insider oscillating between political idealism and the lure of organized money; and Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire who questions the Internet s significance and arrives at a radical vision of the future. Packer interweaves these intimate stories with biographical sketches of the era s leading public figures, from Newt Gingrich to Jay-Z, and collages made from newspaper headlines, advertising slogans, and song lyrics that capture the flow of events and their undercurrents. The Unwinding portrays a superpower in danger of coming apart at the seams, its elites no longer elite, its institutions no longer working, its ordinary people left to improvise their own schemes for success and salvation. Packer s novelistic and kaleidoscopic history of the new America is his most ambitious work to date. Bookseller Inventory # LIB9780374102418

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Book Description Farrar Straus Giroux, United States, 2013. Hardback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. The 2013 National Book Award Winner A New York Times Bestseller Selected by New York Times critic Dwight Garner as a Favorite Book of 2013 One of Amazon s Best Books of 2013 A New York Times Notable Book of 2013 A Washington Post Best Political Book of 2013 An NPR Best Book of 2013 A New Republic Best Book of 2013 One of Publishers Weekly s Best Nonfiction Books of 2013 A Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book of 2013 A riveting examination of a nation in crisis, from one of the finest political journalists of our generation American democracy is beset by a sense of crisis. Seismic shifts during a single generation have created a country of winners and losers, allowing unprecedented freedom while rending the social contract, driving the political system to the verge of breakdown, and setting citizens adrift to find new paths forward. In The Unwinding, George Packer, author of The Assassins Gate: America in Iraq, tells the story of the United States over the past three decades in an utterly original way, with his characteristically sharp eye for detail and gift for weaving together complex narratives. The Unwinding journeys through the lives of several Americans, including Dean Price, the son of tobacco farmers, who becomes an evangelist for a new economy in the rural South; Tammy Thomas, a factory worker in the Rust Belt trying to survive the collapse of her city; Jeff Connaughton, a Washington insider oscillating between political idealism and the lure of organized money; and Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire who questions the Internet s significance and arrives at a radical vision of the future. Packer interweaves these intimate stories with biographical sketches of the era s leading public figures, from Newt Gingrich to Jay-Z, and collages made from newspaper headlines, advertising slogans, and song lyrics that capture the flow of events and their undercurrents. The Unwinding portrays a superpower in danger of coming apart at the seams, its elites no longer elite, its institutions no longer working, its ordinary people left to improvise their own schemes for success and salvation. Packer s novelistic and kaleidoscopic history of the new America is his most ambitious work to date. Bookseller Inventory # LIB9780374102418

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Book Description Farrar Straus Giroux, United States, 2013. Hardback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . This book usually ship within 10-15 business days and we will endeavor to dispatch orders quicker than this where possible. Brand New Book. The 2013 National Book Award Winner A New York Times Bestseller Selected by New York Times critic Dwight Garner as a Favorite Book of 2013 One of Amazon s Best Books of 2013 A New York Times Notable Book of 2013 A Washington Post Best Political Book of 2013 An NPR Best Book of 2013 A New Republic Best Book of 2013 One of Publishers Weekly s Best Nonfiction Books of 2013 A Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book of 2013 A riveting examination of a nation in crisis, from one of the finest political journalists of our generation American democracy is beset by a sense of crisis. Seismic shifts during a single generation have created a country of winners and losers, allowing unprecedented freedom while rending the social contract, driving the political system to the verge of breakdown, and setting citizens adrift to find new paths forward. In The Unwinding, George Packer, author of The Assassins Gate: America in Iraq, tells the story of the United States over the past three decades in an utterly original way, with his characteristically sharp eye for detail and gift for weaving together complex narratives. The Unwinding journeys through the lives of several Americans, including Dean Price, the son of tobacco farmers, who becomes an evangelist for a new economy in the rural South; Tammy Thomas, a factory worker in the Rust Belt trying to survive the collapse of her city; Jeff Connaughton, a Washington insider oscillating between political idealism and the lure of organized money; and Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire who questions the Internet s significance and arrives at a radical vision of the future. Packer interweaves these intimate stories with biographical sketches of the era s leading public figures, from Newt Gingrich to Jay-Z, and collages made from newspaper headlines, advertising slogans, and song lyrics that capture the flow of events and their undercurrents. The Unwinding portrays a superpower in danger of coming apart at the seams, its elites no longer elite, its institutions no longer working, its ordinary people left to improvise their own schemes for success and salvation. Packer s novelistic and kaleidoscopic history of the new America is his most ambitious work to date. Bookseller Inventory # BTE9780374102418

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