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Review: The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, By George Packer

This rich collage of characters and events adds up to a devastating picture of a country in crisis

"No one can say when the unwinding began – when the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way”. The problem is not finding a single moment when the system cracked, but choosing which one to begin with, for there are plenty of candidates for the instant when the social contract that held mid-century America together began to visibly fray, its institutions appearing irredeemably tarnished. Vietnam, the Detroit riots and Watergate alone offer us the limits of imperial power, the enduring racial divisions despite the civil rights movement, and the deep corruptions of the military-industrial-political complex as heralds of America's fragmentation.

In this book's opening montage of the year 1978, George Packer quotes the headline: “California Voters Approve Plan to Cut Property Taxes by $7bn”. Perhaps it began here? The gigantic windfall of California's real estate market was kept in private hands while, in the heart of the global knowledge economy, the state education system was allowed to slip from among the world's finest and most egalitarian to virtually the worst and most penurious in the US. One consequence is that California has also acquired the biggest and most expensive prison population in the country. “In the unwinding the winners win bigger than ever, floating away like dirigibles, and losers have a long way to fall before they hit bottom, and sometimes they never do.”

Over the past three decades America has won the Cold War, retained its global military hegemony, had two giant economic booms and been the leading intellectual edge of the new digital economy. Yet it has experienced a process of creeping but profound decay and self-destruction. This is the vast historical canvas of The Unwinding.

But how does one write such a book? How does one capture an era so kaleidoscopic, and combine the analytical and emotional gazes that this tumultuous era of decline and disorientation demands? As Packer notes, his method owes a considerable debt to an earlier and somewhat forgotten attempt to grasp a moment both of profound change and poisonous levels of inequality in American life – John Dos Passos's 1938 trilogy U.S.A.

Dos Passos combined four elements. First, he wrote narrative fiction that crossed three decades of American history through a dozen central characters and multiple cameos, creating a network of story and imagery. This was punctuated by his own stream-of-consciousness autobiography, brilliant pen portraits of key public figures and complex montages of speech, song, print and thought: a fractured, jagged text that reflected its age.

Packer's collages are shorter and sweeter: a single pivotal year in a single page. So 1987 cuts between Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, to headlines announcing the collapse of the Dow index, to early profiles of nerdy Bill Gates, to the gossip-mongering of the scandal and celebrity rags. And 2003 sees Kobe Bryant's rape trial sit with voices from Iraq and snatches of an article that revealed that Paris Hilton had never heard of Wal-Mart.

The biographies are unsentimental, penetrating accounts of America's elites and their self-delusions. Newt Gingrich's contribution to the collapse of all forms of civility and rationality in American political conversation is brilliantly catalogued; a process that reached its nadir in the splenetic cruel dogma of Andrew Breitbart – a notorious right-wing blogger.

Robert Rubin's effortless movement between the heights of Wall Street and the White House demonstrate that closed circuit of power and belief among American elites; his utter failure to comprehend the causes and character of the financial meltdown demonstrates their inability to see their own greed and self-interest as part of the problem. Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, stands proxy for a business elite that will sweep aside every last social good and close down every competitor in pursuit of profit. Packer passes on the autobiographical dimension, but his smouldering clear-eyed anger with America's elites and his deep empathy with the country's many losers are ever-present. When it comes to the central narratives, Packer doesn't go down the fictional route. The real-life stories of his characters are more than enough to tell the tale.

Tammy Thomas grew up on the wrong side of Youngstown, Ohio, a small city so eviscerated by the deindustrialisation that swept the country that all that was left was wrong sides. For nearly 40 years she survived and that alone was success: drug-addicted parents, teenage pregnancy, feckless partners, a truncated education and two decades of hard graft on what was left of the manufacturing line.

Dean Price, son a bitter Baptist preacher and failed tobacco farmers, worked hard to get himself to a blue-chip company, only to reject its miserable alienation and shallow compensations. Thomas finds a new way when she embraces America's tradition of urban community organising. Price finds his way again as an evangelist for bio-fuels and a green rural economy in the South that keeps the money local, producers independent, and Wal-Mart out.

Perhaps the best parts of the book come towards the end as the many strands of the story unravel in Tampa, where the sub-prime housing boom implodes, and then in New York as Occupy Wall Street finally gives popular vent to the accumulated injustices, miseries and foolishness of the unwinding. Packer's retelling of the stories of the Hartzels, a desperately poor and desperately unlucky blue-collar family in Tampa, and Ray – a broken and withdrawn tech-guy from Seattle who washes up in Zuccotti Park – are simply heartbreaking .

Even Packer's Herculean efforts cannot capture the whole of America. There is barely a Latino voice in the book, nor do the disastrous economic and emotional consequences of relentless foreign wars really register. But there is enough here to know that four decades of globalisation and deindustrialisation under the rule of Silicon Valley and Wall Street has left American society broken and vulnerable. No one in Washington, should they even care to, knows how to stop the process. “In the unwinding, everything changes and nothing lasts, except for the voices, American voices.”

Packer's is an American voice of exceptional clarity and humanity in a tradition of reportage that renders the quotidian extraordinary. When our descendants survey the ruins of this modern imperium and sift its cultural detritus, American voices like this will be the tiny treasures that endure.

David Goldblatt's global history of football, 'The Ball is Round', is published by Penguin