Redrawing the New York-Comics Relationship

Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project

Book Review: George Packer’s “The Unwinding”

George Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of a number of fiction and non-fiction books, including The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq. The Unwinding: Thirty Years of American Decline (also subtitled An Inner History of the New America), is his latest book. In it, Packer traces the trajectory of the United States from 1978 through 2012, mainly through the extended narratives of lobbyist and ex-Wall Streeter Jeff Connaughton in Washington, Southern entrepreneur Dean Price, and factory-worker-turned-community-organizer Tammy Thomas in Youngstown, Ohio, as well as through short (and often rough) biographical sketches of public figures like Newt Gingrich, Jay-Z, and Oprah, and through portraits of places like Silicon Valley and Florida. The book’s prologue ends with a beautiful piece of writing that foreshadows what is to come, in style and content: “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.”

But The Unwinding is by no stretch of the imagination an easy book to read. The emergence of the new beyond-laissez-faire mentality of Wall Street, the hardening and increasing recklessness of the media in search of “maximum bang from a story,” and several other facets that make contemporary life in America tougher are laid bare in a readable and straightforward way that is more often than not tragic to see. Although not a scholarly work, like James T. Patterson’s Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore (Oxford History of the United States), which covers much of the same period, The Unwinding paints a clear picture of the life of a number of ordinary Americans who have had to struggle against unfavorable odds over the past decades. As such, it provides valuable background and context for the study of comics from the same period, which have often reflected a similar unease with American life.

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