New Yorker writer Packer (Interesting Times: Writing from a Turbulent Decade, 2009, etc.) ranges across the country to chronicle the time when “the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way.”
“I am the empire at the end of the decadence.” Thus said the French poet Mallarmé. Packer describes the decline of America from a very specific time: If you were born half a century ago, around 1960, then, he writes, “you watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape.” While forces are picking away at the pillars that still stand (Social Security, public education, privacy, etc.), and while only money seems to matter, the author offers the tiniest comfort in the thought that America has declined and fallen before. Still, this decline seems steeper than those others, save for the Civil War. Among his subjects are the city of Tampa, Fla., which once “was going to be America’s Next Great City” but is mired in stagnation and desperation, and a struggling, no-longer-aspirational factory worker named Tammy, one of whose co-workers sagely observes, “Most people wouldn’t survive in a factory. Mitt Romney would die in a week.” Against these depressed landscapes and people, Packer juxtaposes a few who are doing a bit better: Raymond Chandler, “a drinker” whose lapidary stories of blue-collar America have become classics; Oprah Winfrey, empire builder; and Colin Powell, empire builder of another kind. Packer’s repetitive structure—a chapter on Tammy followed by one on Tampa followed by other pieces—hammers home the point that all is not well in America and not likely to get better soon, the promise of “acres of diamonds in Greenville [N.C.]” notwithstanding.
Exemplary journalism that defines a sobering, even depressing matter. A foundational document in the literature of the end of America—the end, that is, for the moment.