“The Unwinding” is the right title for George Packer’s epic, sad and unsettling history of the last four decades in the US. Oliver Burkeman, The Guardian
Returning to Hollywood High
By Leslie Clague
In September of this year I will be travelling to Hollywood, California for my 50th Hollywood High School class reunion. Yes, I was a cheerleader at Hollywood High, graduating in 1964, a fact I love sharing here in New Zealand because of the reaction it gets. Not, as I always explain, that Hollywood has much in it of which to be particularly proud.
Just returning to the U.S., a place I haven’t visited in close to 20 years, should be rather something. I will be travelling on my New Zealand passport, as my U.S. one has run out and I consider myself a Kiwi now. That, too, may lead to some interesting events.
Analysing the last few decades of American history
At any rate, in beginning to prep for this experience I decided to read a book that got great reviews in The New Yorker: The Unwinding – An Inner History of the New America by George Packer (Faber and Faber, 2013). It covers U.S. history for the last 30 odd years, which is just about the length of time I have lived in New Zealand.
Perhaps the reviews were so positive because Mr. Packer is a staff writer for the prestigious magazine, but in actual fact, the book is exceptional and a must read for someone trying to understand where the U.S. is coming from in its current world outlook.
Thoroughly researched, the book traces the lives of various people in the U.S., from working class backgrounds, to middle class, to the rich and famous. Three people in particular, who live in Ohio, Florida and one working in Washington D.C., are followed in greater detail in chapters spread through the three parts of the book.
The famous, like Oprah Winfrey and Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, have single chapters. Another series of chapters cover individuals who are in the IT industry in Silicon Valley, California.
The book covers
- financial crises
- efforts to come back out of these crises
- the politics as they really seem to work now in the U.S.
Perhaps the most chilling fact I read was: By 2007, the top 1 percent owned 40 percent of the nation’s wealth, the bottom four-fifths just 7 percent.
Making money, battling for what’s right and virtual worlds
The book is about people winning and losing and in America winning can only mean making money. Jeff Connaughton, the lobbyist and political administrator in Washington, after working initially in finance in New York, retires disillusioned to Florida after years of seeing how politics and finance always work together.
Two of the detailed biographies on Dean Price and Tammy Thomas do give some hope about the human spirit. Despite all the odds they have personalities that don’t give up and they keep battling for what they want and think is right.
In terms of current economic issues, where so much is based on information technology, Packer compared the time of creation of the Apollo space programme to this new focus: Information itself was a sign of the problem. The creation of virtual worlds had taken the place of advances in the physical world.
A chance to assess the reality
What will be fascinating after reading this book is to travel back and meet old school mates and see how the past 30 years have impacted on them; how they compare with the chilling contents of The Unwinding.
The book has certainly reinforced my delight, satisfaction and sense of privilege to be a New Zealand citizen.
It is available at Kapiti Coast District Libraries.