George Packer visits the Oxford Exchange to talk about The Unwinding

The New Yorker staff writer said one thing he didn't do in the book, which already made the New York Times best-seller list, is create a laundry list of what ails the country, and a list of policy prescriptions to address them. "I wanted to create something more like reading a novel over what's happened over this past generation to America."

He said The Unwinding is also a story about how our institutions — like schools, businesses, the media and government — have failed us. That's certainly not an original idea, as other writers have noted that same failure (like Christopher Hayes with his book Twilight of the Elites). Those failures are illustrated by Packer's deep reporting that captured the lives of some of the book's major characters such as tobacco farmer Dean Price, Ohio factory worker Tammy Thomas, and Joe Biden staffer turned lobbyist Jeff Connaughton.

After reading aloud for 30 minutes, Packer then fielded questions from the audience. Someone asked how he found characters like Dean Price and Tammy Thomas.

He said he came into contact with Price while working on a New Yorker story about a Congressman from Virginia. "And 30 seconds on the phone with Dean telling me about his come to Jesus moment when he discovered biodiesel. That was his phrase. I said 'Stop talking. I'm coming down. I don't want to hear it.' Because I have this sense that once people have said it once, the next time it just won't be as good ... so just save it for when I get down there." Packer said he met with Price between eight to 10 times to learn more about him.

In the the case of Tammy Thomas, Packer said he found her in part because he was looking for a woman and for a representative from the Rust Belt. He said by "asking around" he heard about Thomas, a black community organizer from Youngstown who seemed to fit the bill. "But nothing could have prepared me for the incredible life she's had and how tough she is and how humble she is..."

He later said the original idea behind The Unwinding came while he was in Iraq reporting for what would ultimately be The Assassin's Gate, a 2005 book on the U.S. invasion there.

"I asked myself why are we so ineffective here? And I went from thinking of it as just a failure of leaders — which it was, absolutely — to a failure of institutions," he said.

Michael Van Sickler of the Tampa Bay Times, St. Petersburg attorney Matthew Weidner, Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, and local citizens Danny and Ronale Hartznell were all part of The Unwinding and were all in attendance at the Oxford Exchange, adding another layer to the proceedings.

When asked about Dwight Garner's New York Times book review, which included the money phrase that the Tampa depicted by Packer "seems like hell on earth now," the author was a bit defensive and quick to note that it was Garner's phrase, not his own.

"I winced because I knew it would be painful for people to hear," he said. "The answer is: Read the book and tell me if I've done justice to Tampa or not. Tell me if this is a true and fair picture. If I've left things out, I'd like to know. I'm sure I have, because I'm an outsider, I don't know the place the way you do. I tried to tell the stories that people told me."

  • George Packer signing a copy of his new book at the Oxford Exchange in Tampa

"I would say Tampa is one of the main characters in the book," George Packer said in his opening comments last Friday night to an audience of about 50 people at the Oxford Exchange in downtown Tampa. "They're not just about one person. So I think of Tampa itself as being one of the characters in the book."

The book is The Unwinding: An Inner History of the new America, Packer's narrative of America throughout the past 35 years as seen through the eyes and voices of both ordinary people and public figures. It's been labeled by some reviewers as a reflection of the end of American exceptionalism, and life in the Tampa Bay region (referred to simply as "Tampa" in the book) is definitely prominent in this tale.

"I wanted in this book to create a big panoramic picture of America but also a very intimate one that would feel like reading a novel," Packer said before reading from the book's prologue. "The book is really about how the social contract that used to hold Americans together and offer some kind of foundation for the dreams of ordinary Americans has come undone in this past generation."

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