Perhaps the best part of “The Unwinding” is the way these chapters inhabit and animate each character’s perspective. When Dean Price graduates from high school in 1981, he faces three options: work at the furniture or textile factories; work at the cigarette factory, which adds in benefits and two free cartons a week; or head off to college. Packer describes this choice in terms of report cards, with the C and D students going into textiles and the B students into tobacco. “The A students,” he writes, “three in his class, went to college." It’s a simple moment, but also one that immerses you in Dean’s world, and Packer excels at these touches.
Still, every few chapters Packer will set his characters aside and consider the big picture. Here he borrows from a surprising model: John Dos Passos’s "U.S.A." trilogy. While Dos Passos’s novels were widely read in the 1930s, in today’s literary geography they’re more Youngstown than Silicon Valley. But Packer resurrects Dos Passos’s unique structure – not just the rotating perspectives but also the “Newsreel” sections, which consist of fragments from pop songs, TV shows, and newspaper clippings, and the short polemical biographies of politicians and celebrities. (Packer skips Dos Passos’s “Camera Eye” sections, and wisely so, since no one’s ever figured out what the novelist was up to.)
These shorter sections don’t always work. The Newsreels, which seem so fresh in Dos Passos’s books, feel dull in Packer’s, mostly because technologies like Twitter now atomize pop culture in real time. (Sorry, George!) But the payoff comes when Packer’s various elements combine in powerful and startling ways. After we watch Price fall for Reagan in the early 1980s, we move to Packer’s incisive take on Newt Gingrich, a Reagan evangelist in “the modern, middle-class South of the space program and the gated community." Then we meet Jeff Connaughton, whose parents belong to that new South. One of these men becomes a political apostate, one a Biden Democrat, one a Newt Gingrich, but their intertwined narratives show how much they share. In Packer’s hands, isolated lives connect and ricochet until they become parts of a larger, and bleaker, history.