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May 27, 2013 3:25 PM Lost in the Undertow

By Ed Kilgore

The acid test of any book review is whether it makes you want to read the book. Michael O’Donnell passes that test easily in his review of George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, in the May/June issue of the Washington Monthly. O’Donnell opens his review with a very timely dissection of the chronic conservative habit of trumpeting “American exceptionalism”—a sort of supernatural guarantee that this country isn’t to be judged by the same boring empirical indicators as other countries, and doesn’t need “liberal investments” like decent public schools or roads—even as they raise cries that the country is “in decline.”

But having navigated this false choice between national inerrancy and disaster, O’Donnell turns to Packer’s book, which simply documents the terrible things that have recently been happening to far too many Americans who have been lost in the undertow of large economic waves.

Packer puts aside economic indicators and strategic assessments to approach the topic of American decline from the most intimate of angles: the personal profile. The book follows three representative Americans: an African American assembly-line worker from Youngstown, Ohio; a truck stop owner and biofuels visionary from North Carolina; and a disillusioned Washington insider. Each section of the book begins with a collection of headlines and sound bites to give a flavor of the times.
The kaleidoscopic presentation, inspired by John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. novels, draws on Packer’s years of reporting at the New Yorker, and it takes some getting used to. Yet by the book’s end, Packer seems to have found a new way to tell a familiar story, which he describes as the slow unraveling during his lifetime of institutions like midwestern factories and California universities. The Unwinding also echoes the symphonic rage of the celebrated television series The Wire, which fictionalized the demise of the American city. Packer offers a profoundly dispiriting picture of the United States: all three of his main characters are crushed, in their own way. Yet each narrative ends on a hopeful note.

As a big fan of the U.S.A. trilogy (all right we are two nations), O’Donnell’s review left me as interested in Packer’s style as in his reporting.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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