My rating: 4 of 5 stars
George Packer writes for The New Yorker and this book reads like an extended version of one of his profiles. Or five of his profiles. There's almost no big-picture analysis of forces which are unwinding America (deindustrialisation, recessions, real estate bubbles) but the astute reader can analyze on his own. Packer wanders back and forth between the profiles, interrupting periodically with collages of news headlines and brief biographies of public figures (Packer acknowledges the influence of John Dos Passos in his afterword).
The unorthodox structure takes some getting used to but the overall impact of the book is powerful because of it. Ordinary people, not caricatures. Isolated, failed by our institutions, battered by our financial systems, made impotent by our political circus.
In the biographical section about author Raymond Carver, Packer captures the overall mood of the book when he writes, "Ray wanted to write a novel. But a man who was trying to wash six loads of clothes at the Laundromat while his wife was serving food somewhere and the kids were waiting for him to come pick them up somewhere else and it was getting late and the woman ahead of him kept putting more dimes in the dryer--that man could never write a novel. To do that, he would need to be living in a world that made sense..."
Packer hits on themes that have gotten under my skin for years, highlighted in books like The Geography of Nowhere and Cheap: The High Price of Discount Culture. Dean Price, one of Packer's subjects, synopsizes the trouble with big-box retailers brilliantly, "And if you think about it, the people that ran the hardware store, the shoe store, the little restaurant that was here, they were the fabric of the community. They were the leaders. They were the Little League baseball coaches, the were the town council members, they were the people everybody looked up to. We lost that."
Later, Packer puts this stream-of-consciousness in Dean Price's head, "Some nights he sat up late on his front porch with a glass of Jack and listened to the trucks heading south on 220, carrying crates of live chickens to the slaughterhouses--always under cover of darkness, like a vast and shameful trafficking--chickens pumped full of hormones that left them too big to walk--and he thought how these same chickens might return from their destination as pieces of meat to the floodlit Bojangles' up the hill from his house, and that meat would be drowned in the bubbling fryers by employees whose hatred of the job would leak into the cooked food, and that food would be served up and eaten by customers who would grow obese and end up in the hospital in Greensboro with diabetes or heart failure, a burden to the public, and later Dean would see them riding around the Mayodan Wal-Mart in electric carts because they were too heavy to walk the aisles of a Supercenter, just like hormone-fed chickens."
In another section, profiling a unionized millworker in Youngstown named Tammy, outlines a specific struggle the area had to tackle after the closing of the steel mills and highlights one of the biggest problems America seems to have; standing in the way of a good idea because by supporting it, you might inadvertently support something you are supposed to be against. "Youngstown was a food desert--there were hardly any decent stores in the whole city. From certain parts of the east side, it took a four-hour round trip on the bus to buy fresh groceries...The food campaign put Tammy in touch with a white evangelical church south of Youngstown, where the minister, Steve Fortenberry, had started a cooperative farm on thirty-one acres. His congregation had some older and more conservative members who were skeptical of anything having to do with environmentalism, so he pitched the project as feeding the hungry, which was easier to sell."
And progress. What is progress? Are you reading this on your phone? Is THAT progress? "At Cafe Venetia in downtown Palo Alto--the spot where Thiel and Elon Musk had decided over coffee in 2001 to take PayPal public, five blocks up University Avenue from the original offices of PayPal, which were across the street from the original offices of Facebook and the current offices of Palantir, six miles from the Google campus in Mountain View, less than a mile in one direction and half a block in the other direction from that secular temple of the new economy known as an Apple Store, in the heart of the heart of Silicon Valley, surrounded by tables full of trim, healthy, downwardly dressed people using Apple devices while discussing idea creation and angel investments--Thiel pulled an iPhone out of his jeans pocket and said, 'I don't consider this to be a technological breakthrough.' Compared to the Apollo space program or the supersonic jet, a smartphone looked small. In the forty years leading up to 1973, there had been huge technological advances, and wages had increased sixfold. Since then, Americans beguiled by mere gadgetry had forgotten how expansive progress could be."
Oliver Burkeman, reviewing this book for The Guardian wrote "On finishing the book, the reader might be forgiven for feeling the urge to follow the example of Connaughton, who, after leaving his last job in DC, flew straight to Costa Rica, went on an eight-hour hike, then returned to his hotel and 'turned on the shower and got in without taking off his clothes, standing under the stream and letting it soak him and soak him until he felt clean.'"
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