I bought Brotherly Love, a discounted, yet signed, copy from the remaindered section of the bookstore where I used to work. At the time I was enamored by Pete Dexter, whose books Train and Paris Trout I had recently read. Both of those books are spare and menacing, at times brutally violent, but done in a masterful way. Brotherly Love is like those books, but to call the book spare is an understatement. Dexter takes his time – most of the book, really – fleshing out the main characters, cousins Peter and Michael Flood from a Philadelphia gangster family. As the plot slowly develops – or comes to a boil, one might say – it becomes clear that Peter wants out. But of course, Michael and his band of hoods keep dragging him back in. In Brotherly Love, Dexter doesn’t quite plumb the emotional depths of his characters as he does so effectively in Paris Trout and Train, and the reader is left with a book that feels empty and characters that feel doomed from page one.
A bomb named Trinity exploded at 5:29 am on July 16, 1945, in a region of central New Mexico known as La Jornada del Muerto: the Journey of Death. Violence was destined for this stretch of the desert, and such inevitability was not lost on J. Robert Oppenheimer. A rather literary warrior, Oppenheimer wrote poetry at Harvard years before he directed the Manhattan Project. One poem, “Crossing,” likely depicts “ranges barring the sky” near the Norman Bridge Laboratory in California, where Oppenheimer did physics research. The poem’s setting is indistinguishable from Santa Fe, where he led the development of Trinity, as well as the bombs that would later destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oppenheimer claimed the name Trinity came from John Donne’s representation of the “three person’d God,” though biographer Ray Monk thinks the physicist is being “characteristically evasive.” If the bomb delivered a snippet of God’s wrath, it was a merciless God.
Fat Man and Little Boy, the unique debut novel by Mike Meginnis, is a noteworthy contribution to the literary aftermath of these bombs. Meginnis’s style is perfectly suited to his subject, though that style has a curious antecedent in the prose of poet Dylan Thomas. “The Tree,” a story tucked into Adventures in the Skin Trade, is a surreal fable about a boy who nails a traveling beggar to a tree. Thomas’s prose whispers the violence. The boy is whipped into frenzy by his family’s zealot gardener, who “would sit in his shed and read of the crucifixion, looking over the jars on his window-shelf into the winter nights.” Thomas takes soft steps as he reaches the story’s conclusion, when “blood from the cuts fell shining on to the tree.” His one-sentence paragraphs are not breathless but heavy, and the boy’s perversion of the Passion narrative results in an uneven ending, as if the story was too raw to be edged. Meginnis’s prose commands a similar power, even during its moments of declarative simplicity. Fat Man and Little Boy is what it would sound like if Dylan Thomas wrote about the atomic bomb.
After the novel’s short, imagistic prelude, the bombs dropped on Japan — Fat Man and Little Boy — become human. Fat Man opens his eyes inside a bunker, surrounded by destruction. He sobs “without apparent cause, or with causes too trivial for words: the way his walrus shadow climbs the wall so that his head looms on the ceiling like an astral body.” He is whole in body, but only a child in narrative age. He “remembers how it was to explode.” Little Boy, “gawky and thin,” whose “bones all protrude from his limbs like knobs on a young tree,” calls his larger friend “brother.” Their life together begins in kindness. Little Boy asks if he can walk by Fat Man’s side, and hold his hand, and speak to him. But Fat Man looks around to see the destruction they wrought. Meginnis’s talent is his ability to make the reader feel empathy for souls who killed so many.
Do bombs have souls? Is this metempsychosis or magic? If the bombs were not alive, then what caused these new births? These are literal questions for a surreal narrative, but they reveal Meginnis’s ability to make the absurd as tangible as the real. The brothers walk through destroyed cities, where “Bodies that from a distance seemed done with life, but, more closely observed, revealed themselves as dreaming, bleeding, faintly breathing, on a bed of any given thing, or dirt. Some also clutched knives, or bowls with jagged broken edges, or horseshoes, or broomsticks, or other improvised weapons.” They know death is near again. The bombs’ destruction was not merely one bright, loud moment. Now “a man at the edge of the fire standing in what was left of his home, calling out. He was inaudible, his mouth was open. The walls were collapsed to knee-level heaps; there was a metal bowl fused to his chin. Other kitchen items littered the ground around him, and there was a table overturned. He wrung his hands in front of him, pleading. His skin fell off his body in sheets. It hung from his fingertips and swung like streamers as he moved his hands.”
The novel’s first act is funereal. Meginnis is in his absolute element when he embraces the varying registers of folklore, when the specific lives next to the abstract. Like many folkloric characters in this tradition, the brothers are obsessed with birth: their own origin narratives, but also the round bellies of pregnant women and the distended sections of expectant animals. One scene on a farm is so eerie that it becomes eternal. A farmer tells the brothers that the “pigs must think you are their fathers” as laughter “dies in his throat. A darkness passes over his face. He understands something that he did not before. The hog shadows grow longer; the animals themselves do not move.”
Many pages in this novel feel like engravings, and those meticulous emblems carry the novel through uneven moments, as when the story strays from its folkloric center. The novel’s second act brings the brothers to France, and the trip first sounds like a joke, but the punchline is real. Their misadventures increase their dramatic humanity, but the book’s profluence slows until Meginnis carries the brothers to Hollywood. Fat Man has married Rosie, the owner of a hotel in France, and they have a daughter, Maggie. Fat Man is being chased by more than one character who wants revenge for the atomic blasts, but the family attempts as much normalcy as anthropomorphic weapons of mass destruction can manage. They come across a restaurant called “Atomic Burger,” and Fat Man hesitates, thinking “it’s in pretty bad taste” to eat there. The scene is hilarious enough to make one cringe, and signals Meginnis’s return to narrative control. The novel’s final quarter shifts between suspense and transcendence.
During the novel’s dramatic end, the family escapes to see a movie: “Seeing a movie in Hollywood is like going to church. Everyone dresses up. The ushers guide you to a place where you’ll feel welcome or at least out of the way. The room swells with talk until the show starts, and then everybody shuts up. The audience’s eyes swell with hope and need while the music blares and then, when the talking starts, they settle in. This one will be like the others. But you’ve got to respect it. The ritual of the movie is more important than the movie.” Meginnis has said that the novel had its origins in filmic representations of the explosions, how the cloud crawled wider and wider, changing the land forever. Meginnis has written one of the best, most natural novels about the atomic bombs. Dennis Bock’s 2001 novel, The Ash Garden, also examined the intersection between American and Japanese lives in the decades after the blasts. Bock’s novel, though beautifully written, feels more orchestrated and less organic in comparison. Literature often seeks to intellectualize methods of war, and to craft fictional revisions of conflict that offer transcendent theses. In making the bombs human, Meginnis switches the expected fictional order; he leads with idea, and then steps aside.
Fat Man and Little Boy earns its clever conceit, and carries its greatest power when localized to settings that felt the heat of these bombs. The novel begins in a broken Japan and ends in a fabulist Hollywood, where destruction often gets a second take. Fat Man and Little Boy is a second take on the legacy of American bombs. Despite the novel’s experimentation, it is ultimately more fact than fiction.
When he became the New York Times’s chief film critic in 2004, A.O. Scott got one of the world’s great jobs at what was possibly the worst historical moment to have been so anointed. As a credentialed critic of the old, ex cathedra school, Scott is deeply out of step with his times. We live in an age in which opinion has been radically democratized by digital publishing, which means the professional has to shout louder than ever to be heard, a problem for which the Times’s enviable platform is only a partial solution. Institutional authority of all kinds has been on the run for almost 50 years in America, so Scott’s Harvard degree, his polished prose, and his intimidating cultural range — in an imaginary dinner a deux, this writer does not make it through the appetizer course with him without confronting panicked feelings of inadequacy — are not just unavailing but likely to create intractable resentment in many of his readers. And because we have become a society hungry to consume but paralytically reluctant to judge, one of the basic motives of the critic, to create taxonomies of value, has become suspect. This, then, is a rather defensive and sometimes irritable book, an act of muffled aggression by a man besieged and yet conscious of occupying a privileged position in the world.
The immediate sources of Scott’s anxiety are three: (1) a Twitter attack by Samuel L. Jackson after Scott panned The Avengers; (2) a podcast in which late Times media critic David Carr mocked Scott’s pretentions to authority, to Scott’s obvious irritation; and (3) Scott Rudin’s full-page ad in the Times for Inside Llewyn Davis, consisting solely of a slightly edited version of a message Scott posted, apparently in a condition of dubious sobriety, on his Twitter account. That new media played a role in each of these events is perhaps not coincidental; every writer not grinding out listicles feels at least some ambivalence about digital culture, if only because it threatens to drive the market value of his output to zero. Better Living Through Criticism is a defense of the critic’s work, but it is also, at times, a history of taste, a reflection on digital culture, a spectacle of explication, and above all, a defense of the unenviable condition, in our youth-obsessed society, of being middle-aged — that is, of having an aesthetic history. The book’s range of discussion sometimes feels like an abundance and at other times like a cheat, as though Scott failed in some measure to decide what book, exactly, he wanted to write — a restiveness perhaps reflected in its larkish, off-putting title.
Scott regards the impact of the Internet on criticism as largely negative, both because the Internet threatens the livelihood of professional critics (“Making a living…can no longer be taken for granted”) and because the tendency of digital culture is to erode the distinctions upon which criticism rests (“The relationship between market value and other, less tangible and sometimes antithetical values — of knowledge, beauty, originality, substance — seems to be in danger of falling apart, and as a result the basic distinction between professional and amateur threatens to collapse as well.”). Scott’s discussion is nuanced and fair, but still I think his account is too pessimistic. Some web-only publications already have supported the careers of excellent critics: Laura Miller of Salon and Slate; Kiese Laymon of Gawker and Guernica and his own blog, Cold Drank; the entire editorial enterprise of the Los Angeles Review of Books. And traditional media have greatly expanded their range through their websites. Tim Parks, for example, has produced a dazzling series of critical essays at NYRBlog, work that is of outstanding intellectual quality but that might not fit comfortably in the Review’s print edition. The digital format need not be an impediment to seriousness; the medium is not necessarily the message. I do not take a Pollyanna, “let a thousand flowers bloom” view of these matters; the Internet has had a devastating effect on newspapers, for example, a form of journalism that I am old enough to remember. But its impact on criticism, I suspect, will be mixed. In any event, it is almost certainly too soon to tell.
I also think Scott places too much emphasis on the pecuniary aspect of professionalism in criticism, at the expense of other, more important values. For a critic to make a middle-class living from her pen alone is no doubt gratifying, and a benefit to her dependents, but I do not think that it is crucial to the overall enterprise. James Wood and Nancy Franklin make a living as critics, as did Edmund Wilson in his day, but Lionel Trilling and Leslie Fiedler lived off their faculty salaries, without any appreciable loss of vitality. If there is not as much good criticism coming out of the academy as one would like, we can blame Continental theory rather than declining pay. Professionalism is made of sterner stuff, one hopes: a commitment to a certain standard of discourse; thorough knowledge of one’s subject; the cultivation of prose style.
As a film critic, Scott confronts a medium that is sometimes art but always business. Since movies are very expensive to make, they must be consumer products, conceived, marketed, and exploited as such. A good commercial movie is the product of immense professional skill by the director, the editor, and others, work that is adjacent to art but is not quite art, that lacks a crucial dimension of motivation or purpose. Outstanding craft in the service of meretricious ends creates a complicated problem for the serious-minded critic. We know where Scott stands on this: for him, a critic is someone who stands athwart the publicity steamroller that is The Avengers saying “Stop.” Indeed, one of our new duties in an age of relentless, all-pervading, and ever-more-sophisticated marketing is to develop strategies of resistance. This is not exactly the heroic endeavor that Iwo Jima was for our grandparents, but it is what we have available, and good critics give us the hermeneutic tools, the catapults and Molotov cocktails of that resistance. The case Scott makes in Better Living for the critic as counterweight to advertising and publicity is one of the strongest aspects of the book, a reminder of what rushes to fill the void when we lapse into critical lethargy.
Scott casts the critic in heroic rather than prosaic terms, as a maker in his own right rather than an appreciator, and beholden finally only to his own taste. His desire to claim for criticism the respect and prestige accorded to artists, without which a critic is merely a kind of particularly unenterprising journalist, is understandable. But I do not think the critical enterprise is robbed of luster by acknowledging that the critic has duties to those responsible for the work under review that might be in tension with his own creative impulses, duties of accuracy and fairness, and more complexly, of good faith. Scott would not gainsay these duties for a moment, I am sure. But about the resolution of these competing drives — the most basic of which might lie in the desire any critic sometimes feels to turn the occasion of the review toward his own aesthetic or political concerns rather than those of the director or author — he has chosen to say very little here. That is a shame, because Scott as much as any critic does justice to all constituencies.
Scott rarely refers directly to his own work in Better Living, a curious act of self-effacement for which, in my view, the payoff is inadequate. There are any number of interesting practical problems, upon which Scott is almost uniquely qualified to declaim, that go unaddressed. How, for example, does a newspaper critic confronted with writing multiple pieces per week on deadline avoid dullness, either of perception or of prose style?
[T]he doling out of consumer advice inevitably drags the act of discrimination into the swamp of relativism. The good enough — for this week’s paycheck or tomorrow’s edition — becomes the enemy of the best, and the chances of discerning and communicating the lasting merit of a given book crumble under a mass of discourse.
Scott himself seems to have conquered this problem, maintaining a consistently high level of thought and expression while being extraordinarily prolific. He has brought the 2,000-word essay-review nearly to the point of perfection; only a few critics have ever done it so well, and none to my knowledge that had to do it three times a week. He also regularly contributes long think pieces on film, books, and other matters cultural. But how?
I am aware here of committing a basic sin of reviewing, which is to ask for some wholly different book than the one the author chose to write. In the course of Scott’s career, which I have followed with interest, I have developed expectations about what he might do at book length, expectations that I am now holding against him. That is not entirely fair (though it is a risk attendant to being the “A” student that Scott perennially has been). For myself alone, then, Better Living is to some extent a story of missed opportunities.
Part of the interest, but also part of the difficulty, of Better Living is that Scott never quite settles into a consistent tone. He seems to feel that his subject is one that cannot be attacked directly, so he tries a variety of strategies, careful exegesis combined with personal observation and witty dialogues. Given that he is a highbrow (a former PhD candidate in literature) in a middlebrow medium (newspapers) writing about a creative form (the movies) that frequently has the lowest of aspirations, a mix of registers in his prose is perhaps to be expected. But one also senses some basic, unresolved ambivalence, a tension created by the confrontation between a scholarly temperament and a world of hot takes — indeed, that tension is, in a sense, the motive for the book. The author of Better Living seems like a man torn between a personal culture that says sublimate, sublimate, sublimate and a national culture that rewards acting out. What to do with all that ego?
Scott is a fine and scrupulous writer of prose. His exegetical skills are formidable. His culture is broad. He can give you a breezy account of European art history across four centuries; he can also tell you how the movie business works right now. He effortlessly parses T.S. Eliot and Immanuel Kant and Ratatouille. At times, though, one feels the conflict between the Scott who wants to make a grand gesture of self-assertion and the one who, after Eliot, seeks in art an escape from personality. Better Living wants to be a defense of traditional critical values, but tradition, as Scott well knows, has a rather bad name these days, and he is too canny, too much the common room politician, to get caught defending the arrière-garde. I would have been more gratified by a fuller-throated defense of the elitist view, not because that is the only defensible position, but because I would have felt that I was hearing what the most inward A.O. Scott truly believes. Instead one feels that a Prufrockian scrim of prudence and deference and good manners has been inserted between the writer and his audience. This is not to say that Scott should seek a more informal or democratic style; indeed, the casual, demotic voice to which he occasionally succumbs seems to me his least successful. And Scott is not, after all, Prufrock; he does dare, several times a week, often to great effect. But I would like to see him dare even more greatly. The great works of cultural criticism that he admires — White Collar; The Culture of Narcissism; On Native Grounds; Love and Death in the American Novel — are all touched by grandiosity. Scott has the resources to achieve something at that level. But he might have to risk a confrontation with his Times audience to do it.
Societies are problematic things. Empires, too. They never seem capable of locating that moment of stolid clarity, when all is good on God’s earth and everyone can get about his or her business without being inordinately harassed by barbarians or the taxman. Either they’re on the ascent and nervous about keeping up appearances, or the downward slide has set in and everybody’s yelling to hang on. Civilizations, by definition saddled with a commentariat that likes to opine about such things, can be like patients eternally on the analyst’s couch. Things aren’t going well, they might say. It all seemed fine a few years ago. And then…things just changed. I’m not sure when it happened, or how. This colors how we look to the past. Most analyses of the Roman Empire skip past the glory days and settle in for a good long Gibbon-quoting look at how things fell apart. That’s the good stuff, it would seem.
The United States is thrashing through a rough bout of self-analysis, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the doom-saturated 1970s. Most of today’s agita stems from a legislative and executive branch whose dysfunctionality could make Italian politicians sigh in relief at for once not being the worst on the scene. Faux-libertarian partisans scamper over each other to tear down every institution or rule that impinges on their narrowly-defined “freedom” while fatally indecisive progressives bleat from the sidelines. Both sides withdraw into self-selected ideological ghettoes. A miserable economy, terrorism, and a sense of the inevitability of environmental collapse don’t help matters. Why else the flood of apocalypse fiction and films?
A sign of just how bleak the country’s sense of the future is can be found in Max Brooks’s World War Z. Although the speculative novel — which rather cleverly reimagines Studs Terkel’s The Good War as an oral history of a world-spanning zombie onslaught — spends much of its time in rather bleak scenery, it also contains a clear trumpeting of hope. Because after Brooks gets done reporting how different nations respond to the assault of the undead, the interviewees (particularly the Americans) talk about how they fought back. Not only do they restructure a shattered nation, they recapture the concept of purpose, of collective action, of citizenship.
It’s a kind of hope that is almost nowhere to be found in George Packer’s awe-inspiring X-Ray of the modern American soul, The Unwinding. It’s a big and unwieldy book with outsize aims and somewhat foggy construction. The book — a couple sections of which have appeared previously in The New Yorker — tries to grasp at the ineffable, to get the patient on the couch to dig deep into their subconscious and say how that makes them feel. By the end of everything, the book may not have achieved one great breakthrough in the manner of cinematic shrinks, but it has illuminated a lot of dark corners and diagnosed a host of concerns. The cure, that’s something else.
Packer takes a similarly broadminded view of his subject as he did in 2005’s The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq, his last substantial work of nonfiction. There, his reportage covered everything from the corridors of power and ineptitude in the Pentagon and the Green Zone to the dust- and shrapnel-littered streets of Baghdad. Here, the sweep is just as big, but with potentially broader implications: the unraveling of American society:
If you were born around 1960 or afterward, you spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding. You watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape…When the norms that made the old institutions useful began to unwind, and the leaders abandoned their posts, the Roosevelt Republic that had reigned for almost half a century came undone. The void was filled by the default force in American life: organized money.
The structure of The Unwinding is a curious one. Instead of taking the literal approach of the journalist who has logged the miles and filled notebooks with impressions and quotes, Packer decants his theory into an episodic string of personal narratives of ordinary citizens. They live the days and nights of a country where bulwarks against rapacious greed and antisocial behavior have been steadily dismantled by forces on all sides of the ideological divide. Those alternating narratives are then interspersed with several thumbnail portraits of celebrity Americans (politicians, rappers, TV stars) whose collective grandeur provides something of a chilling and distant counterpoint.
Packer’s people make a lively mix, and one that doesn’t feel mechanically plotted. He delivers as lyrical oral history the lives of a factory worker from Ohio, a North Carolina entrepreneur, a tech billionaire libertarian, and a number of Tampa residents just trying to keep their lives from unraveling after the bursting of the real estate bubble. The writing attempts to catch each one of their voices without aiming for mimicry. There is clipped data delivery in the chapters on Peter Thiel (the PayPal billionaire who began using his monies for libertarian causes), a richer flow from Dean Price (the North Carolinian progeny of nails-tough tobacco farmers), and an evenhanded, slightly depressed viewpoint from former Democratic political operative Jeff Connaughton.
Again, Packer doesn’t come at the subject directly. One imagines a multi-volume corpus, each one spilling over with appendices, if that were the desire. He comes at it laterally, with a multitude of viewpoints from inside the collapse. The wearied but iron-backed voice of Tammy Thomas details the twinned collapse of the industrial backbone of the Ohio River Valley and the norms of working- and middle-class society that stitched its formerly proud neighborhoods together, black and white. The silence of the factories (dismantled by faraway executives in leveraged buyouts far removed from practical matters of mere profitability) is mirrored by the collapsing, ghostly blocks of once-tidy homes. “She was still amazed by the gaps and silence where there had once been so much life,” Packer writes. “Where had it all gone?”
That keen sense of loss and cloudy chaos rings chime-like through The Unwinding. Packer starts each chapter with a cacophony of voices plucked from a particular year’s media stream. Then the oral histories themselves show people thrashing about as they always have — for careers, for love, for purpose, for the damn rent — only increasingly without any help from a larger society. Unions decline, families fall apart, executives break the company apart for a stock dividend, and politicians cower in terror of the almighty bond market.
Set against the fears and dreams of those trying to hang on to the ladder, or just find out where the rungs have gone, Packer’s vignettes of the powerful come with more of a bite. The Colin Powell shown here is a sympathetic and flailing figure, a striving child of striving immigrants who can’t grasp how much the system he has mastered could fail him so: “He needed structure to thrive, but the structures that had held up the postwar order had eroded.”
As a non-dogmatically progressive writer, Packer’s profile of Newt Gingrich as an opportunistic and cynical blimp of self-aggrandizement is to be expected. A few short paragraphs sum up the corrosive contributions of the helmet-haired flamethrower and lover of total war to the body politic (“Whether he ever truly believed his own rhetoric, the generation he brought to power fervently did. He gave them mustard gas and they used it on every conceivable enemy, including him”). But less expected is Packer’s stinging critique of the unforgiving nature of fanatic self-improvement cultists like Alice Waters and Oprah Winfrey:
But being instructed in Oprah’s magical thinking (vaccinations cause autism, positive thoughts lead to wealth, love, and success), and watching Oprah always doing more, owning more, not all of her viewers began to live their best life. They didn’t have nine houses, or maybe any house…they were not always attuned to their divine self; they were never all that they could be. And since there was no random suffering in life, Oprah left them with no excuse.
In Packer’s view, Americans in the age of institutional failure and social nullity are particularly vulnerable to this special, new gilded age breed of manic preachers. After all, where else are they to turn? One line of description about an Indian immigrant to Florida, Usha Patel (who elsewhere gripes about the laziness of her adopted countrymen) sums it up best: “Usha Patel was not a native-born American, which is to say, she wasn’t alone.” That solitude is one of the book’s uniting factors, whether it’s the emptied and distrustful neighborhoods of Youngstown where Tammy Thomas becomes a community organizer or the cheap, Ponzi-scheme Florida suburbs where everybody is broke, overmedicated, underemployed, and barely aware who their neighbors are.
Solitude isn’t a problem for the likes of Thiel, whom Packer seems to regard as a particularly perfect creature of the age. An innovator with less patience for society than even most of the technically-minded, Thiel embraced libertarianism early in life (partly rooted in his selective reading of science fiction, much like Gingrich and his love of Isaac Asimov) and spent his riches on trying to make those techno-fantasies come true. At the same time, he covered himself in ostentatious displays of wealth, like some latter-day Gatsby miserably inhabiting the corners of his own parties.
That splashing-out of previously obscene monies receives Packer’s most vituperative treatment in his capsule biography of Robert Rubin. While flitting as fiscal “wise man” from Wall Street to the Clinton administration through the 1990s and 2000s, Rubin preached the new gospel of deregulation. He amassed a vast fortune for his advice ($126 million between 1999 and 2009) and when the economy collapsed under the weight of toxic deals he did not want regulated, no apology or reconsideration was forthcoming.
Throughout, Packer is channeling not just his subjects but the writers from that last epoch of vast class divisions in America, the 1930s. His writing echoes both the determined corps of WPA oral historians and the novels of John Dos Passos (the latter of which he explicitly credits). The book draws heavily on the land itself, at least what can be seen of it through the crush of worry about debts, chaos, security. Packer begins and ends things with Price’s dream of a house on ancestral acreage. Packer’s last line is a hopeful one, but one charged with struggle: “He would get the land back.”
The tone of The Unwinding is that of long and anxious conversations unspooling into the night, on a breeze-strafed porch in a foreclosure ‘burb or in a living room where the TV yammers on mutely. There is a lot of passion in the book, forlorn frustration, and anger to spare. Most thankfully, the book doesn’t end with that dread affliction of the modern issue text: the “What Can I Do?” epilogue packaged with an easy 10-point plan to restore America, and some social media links. The societal decline that Packer illuminates is deeper and broader than can be helped by some Facebook likes. But the book keeps the wider perspective. Though there’s anger here, fury even, hysteria doesn’t make an appearance. After all, as Packer notes, “There have been unwindings every generation or two…Each decline brought renewal, each implosion released energy, out of each unwinding came a new cohesion.”
All the country can hope for is a good old-fashioned zombie apocalypse to help everyone remember the appeal of community…also that freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.