Packer isn’t aiming to dissect America’s fall in The Unwinding as much as he’s trying to feel the emotional and personal truths the country’s fall has produced. A direct influence on the book is the novelist John Dos Passos, whose U.S.A. trilogy described Americans struggling to hold on to their values in the first decades of the 20th century.
Like a good novelist, Packer isn’t willing to fit people into types. Many of those portrayed here straddle the many divides of ideology and personal outlook that define these conflictive times, like Dean Price, the North Carolina convenience store owner who embraces the biofuel principle on business and environmental grounds, even though he knows the phrase “global warming” is anathema to most of his Southern friends and neighbors.
Like many Americans, Price latches on to the idea — again and again — that he’s found a simple technical solution to a complex social problem. When his first biofuels project ends in bankruptcy, he conceives of another one involving waste cooking oil. Packer follows Price as he loses himself in his obsession, driving up and down the South with a beat-up car searching for oil and finding it again and again in waste tanks behind restaurants and malls. Price is an unlikely prospector who manages to hold on to his optimism and his belief in the future, despite one personal and national disaster after another. He believes he can get rich and make the country a better and greener place too: It’s an old America ethos, reconfigured for leaner times.
Packer’s other subjects all undergo similar transformations. They don’t give up on their visions for themselves and their country. And in the end The Unwinding is a book that manages to be sad and uplifting, much like the turbulent times it describes.
Hector Tobar reviewed this book for The Los Angeles Times.