An examination of a nation in crisis, Packer journeys through the lives of several Americans including a son of a tobacco farmer, a factory worker in the Rust Belt, a Washington insider, a Silicon Valley billionaire, and others.
At first glance it seems as if Packer is simply documenting the change that took place as the social order of the Roosevelt republic gradually collapsed. But as this book progresses, it becomes apparent that a very pertinent question is being asked: What common bond do those who are ostensibly held together by an idea of American democracy actually share? It's a question the author doesn't definitively answer, but in his quest to find out, a few home truths are discovered. Through his nuanced style of literary journalism, Packer portrays the complexities behind an argument most readers will be familiar with ... Packer's strength as a storyteller lies in his ability to marshal a diverse range of voices from across the class divide, in a nation deeply divided by social status. But the scattered nature of the narrative... means it inevitably lacks a sense of continuity and feels slightly long-winded for what it has to say. Moreover, the very brief biographical sketches Packer drops in every few chapters... ironically steers the book in a direction it otherwise tries to avoid, since Packer is clearly passing judgment on elements of American culture that have evolved since the late 1970s. When he tells us how gangster rap is eroding America's principles, his tone becomes slightly elitist ... Despite The Unwinding's minor flaws, the book is a fitting reminder of the paradox of democracy in America, where ideas that are seemingly sacrosanct can be eroded and replaced within a generation.
... a gripping narrative survey of contemporary America ... This is a book of nearly pure narrative, and [Packer's] meanings are embedded in the way he portrays people, those he likes (outsiders) and those he doesn’t (bankers, the political class). There are some passages of outright analysis in this book to show that America is 'unwinding,' that the structures of everyday life are crumbling, that the nation’s leaders have 'abandoned their posts,' that the void has been filled with 'the default force in American life, organized money.' But I doubt the analytic passages together would fill more than a few pages of this 434-page book. The stories that do fill its pages are beautifully reported ... To repeat, Packer does an outstanding job with these stories. The Unwinding offers vivid snapshots of people who have experienced a loss of faith. As a way of understanding contemporary America, these examples are tantalizing. But they are also frustrating. The book is supposed to have social, economic and political implications, but there is no actual sociology, economics or political analysis in it ... I wish Packer had married his remarkable narrative skills to more evidence and research, instead of just relying on narrative alone. Combine data to lives as they are actually lived ... Packer’s work has no rigorous foundation to rely on, no ideology to give it organization and shape. But the lack of a foundational theory of history undermines the explanatory power of The Unwinding, just as it undermines the power and effectiveness of modern politics more generally.
... ambitious ... a fascinating hybrid ... Packer, an economical and often elegant writer, interweaves these stories, told in short takes, with reporting on distinctive American locales ... a richly complex narrative brew ... Don't read The Unwinding expecting either grand epiphanies or nuts-and-bolts solutions to America's problems — only graceful writing and modest faith that a few dreamers and strivers among us may lead the way to a better future.