The problem came down to this: Americans, who had invented the modern assembly line, the skyscraper, the airplane & the integrated circuit, no longer believed in the future.
I’ve been trying to get to this book since it came out, seems like, and I honestly wish I’d read it prior to the Trump election, but reading it now is still a harsh, damning critique of current American society. Packer picks a few everyday people: a Youngstown factory worker; a Washington lobbyist; a Silicon Valley billionaire and a couple more, and he follows them through the last few tumultuous decades, focusing on the period from the eighties forward and he slowly and mercilessly uses their stories to demolish the American Dream and the bright hope it once represented. Throughout the book he scatters brief profiles of public figures who somehow represent his larger points about the devastation wrought on America in the time since the eighties to now: bleak short-story author Raymond Carver, folksy founder of the Wal-Mart empire Sam Walton, political agitator Newt Gingrich and others that will probably surprise you. The book is basically dedicated to hammering home the reality that what we might have once called the ideals of America simply don’t exist anymore. Packer’s premise is that you can work hard, live right, be good, have hope and still end up on the absolute bottom with nothing to show for it. Parts of the book are desperately painful. A section devoted to a poor, often homeless family in Florida is gut-wrenching. The section on the housing crisis proves that some stories never lose their power to infuriate, no matter how many times they’re told. The story of the Washington lobbyist’s time working with Joe Biden is as damning an indictment of a politician as I’ve ever seen, but the ugly twist is that Packer is asserting that Biden is only an example picked at random, that any other politician would be as bad if not worse. Packer’s style vacillates between spare, stripped down prose that lays out the devastating, enraging facts without passion and a high-flung kind of passionate screed and it works to perfection. Though the primary emotion of the book is a kind of weary bitterness. There are moments of real sadness and moments of real anger and even a few moments of absurd humor, but none of them sustain for very long without lapsing back to the bitterness. This book, like the people in it, is simply too weary to be angry. It’s not even cynical; that would imply this book is looking toward the future when it’s really not. It’s just exhausted and bitter. There are no happy endings in this book for the people this book is about, not really, which is frightening when you remember that this book is essentially about all of us. It’s a must read, an engrossing page-turner mixed with a grim & bitter tract on the nation as it stands today. Not to be missed; this book holds truth. 4 stars.
tl;dr – bitter, biting book explores the lives of everyday Americans to get to truths about the larger culture and the absolute brutality of existence in an America with no Dream left. 4 stars.