No one can say when the unwinding began—when the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way. Like any great change, the unwinding began at countless times, in countless ways—and at some moment the country, always the same country, crossed a line of history and became irretrievably different.
If you were born around 1960 or afterward, you have 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—the farms of the Carolina Piedmont, the factories of the Mahoning Valley, Florida subdivisions, California schools. And other things, harder to see but no less vital in supporting the order of everyday life, changed beyond recognition— ways and means in Washington caucus rooms, taboos on New York trading desks, manners and morals everywhere. 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 unwinding is nothing new. There have been unwindings every generation or two: the fall to earth of the Founders’ heavenly Republic in a noisy marketplace of quarrelsome factions; the war that tore the United States apart and turned them from plural to singular; the crash that laid waste to the business of America, making way for a democracy of bureaucrats and everymen. Each decline brought renewal, each implosion released energy, out of each unwinding came a new cohesion.
The unwinding brings freedom, more than the world has ever granted, and to more kinds of people than ever before—freedom to go away, freedom to return, freedom to change your story, get your facts, get hired, get fired, get high, marry, divorce, go broke, begin again, start a business, have it both ways, take it to the limit, walk away from the ruins, succeed beyond your dreams and boast about it, fail abjectly and try again. And with freedom the unwinding brings its illusions, for all these pursuits are as fragile as thought balloons popping against circumstances. Winning and losing are all- American games, and in the unwinding winners win bigger than ever, floating away like bloated dirigibles, and losers have a long way to fall before they hit bottom, and sometimes they never do.
This much freedom leaves you on your own. More Americans than ever before live alone, but even a family can exist in isolation, just managing to survive in the shadow of a huge military base without a soul to lend a hand. A shiny new community can spring up overnight miles from anywhere, then fade away just as fast. An old city can lose its industrial foundation and two-thirds of its people, while all its mainstays—churches, government, businesses, charities, unions—fall like building flats in a strong wind, hardly making a sound.
Alone on a landscape without solid structures, Americans have to improvise their own destinies, plot their own stories of success and salvation. A North Carolina boy clutching a Bible in the sunlight grows up to receive a new vision of how the countryside could be resurrected. A young man goes to Washington and spends the rest of his career trying to recall the idea that drew him there in the first place. An Ohio girl has to hold her life together as everything around her falls apart, until, in middle age, she finally seizes the chance to do more than survive.
As these obscure Americans find their way in the unwinding, they pass alongside new monuments where the old institutions once stood—the outsized lives of their most famous countrymen, celebrities who only grow more exalted as other things recede. These icons sometimes occupy the personal place of house hold gods, and they offer themselves as answers to the riddle of how to live a good or better life.
In the unwinding, everything changes and nothing lasts, except for the voices, American voices, open, sentimental, angry, matter-of-fact; inflected with borrowed ideas, God, TV, and the dimly remembered past—telling a joke above the noise of the assembly line, complaining behind window shades drawn against the world, thundering justice to a crowded park or an empty chamber, closing a deal on the phone, dreaming aloud late at night on a front porch as trucks rush by in the darkness.
At the turn of the millennium, when he was in his late thirties, Dean Price had a dream. He was walking to his minister’s house on a hard-surface road, and it veered off and became a dirt road, and that road veered off again and became another dirt road, with tracks where wagon wheels had worn it bare, but the grass between the tracks grew chest high, as if it had been a long time since anybody had gone down the road. Dean walked along one of the wagon tracks holding his arms out spread-eagle and felt the grass on either side hitting the underneath of his arms. Then he heard a voice—it came from within, like a thought: “I want you to go back home, and I want you to get your tractor, and I want you to come back here and bush-hog this road, so that others can follow where it’s been traveled down before. You will show others the way. But it needs to be cleared again.” Dean woke up in tears. All his life he had wondered what he was put on earth for, while going in circles like a rudderless ship. He didn’t know what the dream meant, but he believed that it contained his calling, his destiny.
At the time, Dean had just gotten into the convenience store business, which was no calling at all. It would be another five years before he would find one. He had pale freckled skin and black hair, with dark eyes that crinkled up when he smiled or laughed his high-pitched giggle. He got the coloring from his father and the good looks from his mother. He’d been chewing Levi Garrett tobacco since age twelve, and he spoke with the soft intensity of a crusader who never stopped being a country boy. His manner was gentle, respectful, with a quality of refinement that made the men drinking vodka out of plastic cups down at the local Moose Lodge question whether Dean could properly be called a redneck. From childhood on, his favorite Bible verse was Matthew 7:7: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” What he sought his whole life was independence—especially financial independence. His greatest fears, which haunted him all his life, were poverty and failure. He came by them naturally.
His grandparents on both sides had been tobacco farmers, and so had their grandparents, and their grandparents, back to the eighteenth century, all of them on the same few square miles of Rockingham County, North Carolina. They all had Scotch-Irish names that fit neatly on a tombstone: Price, Neal, Hall. And they were all poor. “It’s like if I were to walk down to the creek, I’m going to wear a path,” Dean said. “And every day I’m going to go the same way. That’s how the roads in this country were built, basically. The people that built the roads followed the animals’ paths. And once that path is set, it takes a tremendous amount of effort and energy to take another path. Because you get in that set pattern of thinking, and it’s passed down generation to generation to generation.”
When Dean was a boy, tobacco grew fencepost to fencepost. From April till October you could smell it all over Rockingham County. He was raised in Madison, forty minutes’ drive up Route 220 from Greensboro, and though the Prices lived in town, Dean’s real life was spent out on the tobacco farm of his grandfather Norfleet Price. Norfleet got his name when his daddy, Dean’s great-grandfather, brought a load of tobacco on a two-horse wagon to Winston-Salem, where a man by that last name gave him a very good price. Dean’s father was born on the family land, in a clapboard shack with a front porch, at the edge of a clearing in the hardwood trees. A few feet away was the tobacco barn, a cabin of oak logs cross-stacked with dovetail joints, which Norfleet built with an ax. When Dean was a boy, during the late-summer days when the bright leaf tobacco was primed and hung in the barn for flue curing, he would beg to be allowed to stay there overnight with his grandfather and wake up every hour or two to check that none of the tobacco leaves had fallen into the flames of the oil fire. Priming was backbreaking work, but he loved the smell of tobacco, the big yellowing leaves that grew heavy as leather on stalks four feet high, the way his hands were stained black with sticky tar during the priming, the rhythm of looping the leaves through the stringer and hanging them in bundles like dried flounder from tobacco sticks across the rafters in the barn, the family togetherness. The Prices raised their own meat and grew their own vegetables and got their buttermilk from a lady with a milk cow down the road. School was delayed if the crop came in late, and in the early fall the auction warehouses in Madison burst into life with the harvest jubilee and the brass band parades, a celebration for families that now had their cash for the year, leading up to the holiday feasts. Dean thought that he would grow up to be a tobacco farmer and raise his kids the same way.
Dean’s best friend was his grandfather. Norfleet Price cut wood until the fall before he died, at age eighty-nine, in 2001. Near the end Dean visited him in the rest home and found him strapped to a wheelchair. “Hoss, you got your pocketknife?” his grandfather said.
“Pa, I can’t do that.”
Norfleet wanted to be cut out of the wheelchair. He lasted just a month and a half in the rest home. He was buried in the Price family plot, on a gentle rise in the red clay fields. Norfleet had always worked two or three jobs to get away from his wife, but the name Ruth was carved right next to his on the same headstone, waiting for the body and date of death.
Dean’s father had a chance to break the spell of the family’s poverty thinking. Harold Dean Price, called Pete, was bright and liked to read. Three blank pages at the back of his copy of Merriam-Webster’s dictionary were filled with handwritten definitions of words like “obtuse,” “obviate,” “transpontine,” “miscegenation,” “simulacrum,” “pejorative.” He was a good talker, a fervent hard-shell Baptist, and a bitter racist. Once, Dean visited the civil rights museum in the old Woolworth’s building in downtown Greensboro, where the first sit-ins took place at the lunch counter in 1960. There was a blown-up picture of the four black students from North Carolina A&T walking out onto the street past a mob of white youths who stared them down—hot rods with their hands in their pockets, T-shirts and rolled-up jeans, slicked-back hair, cigarettes hanging from angry mouths. That was Dean’s father. He hated the defiance of the civil rights people, though he never felt that way about Charlie and Adele Smith, the black tenant farmers on the Price land who took care of him when Dean’s grandmother was working at the mill. They were kindhearted and full of humor and understood their place in the scheme of things.
Pete Price met Barbara Neal at a local dance hall and married her in 1961, the year he graduated from Western Carolina College—the first person in his family to get that far. Harold Dean Price II was born in 1963, followed by three sisters. The family moved into a small brick house in Madison, around the corner from the Sharp and Smith tobacco warehouse. Madison and its neighbor Mayodan were textile towns, and in the sixties and seventies the mills had jobs for any young man coming out of high school who wanted one, and if you had a college degree you could take your pick. The brick storefronts on Main Street—pharmacies and haberdasheries and furniture stores and luncheonettes—were full of shoppers, especially on days when the textile warehouses held their sales. “Our country probably prospered as much as it’s ever going to prosper, right there in that era,” Dean said. “They had cheap energy, they had oil in the ground, they had working farms in the surrounding countryside, they had a people that didn’t mind working, they knew what work was about. There was money to be made.”
Dean’s father went to work for the big DuPont plant that manufactured nylon up in Martinsville, just across the Virginia state line. In the late sixties, he fell for the era’s version of a snake oil salesman in the person of Glenn W. Turner, the semiliterate son of a South Carolina sharecropper, who wore shiny three-piece suits and calfskin boots and spoke with the bad lisp of a harelip. In 1967, Turner started a company, Koscot Interplanetary, that sold cosmetics distributorships for five thousand dollars apiece, with the promise of a finder’s fee for every new subfranchisee that the distributor signed up. His followers were also lured into purchasing a black briefcase full of Glenn W. Turner motivational cassette tapes, called “Dare to Be Great,” that went for up to five thousand dollars, with a similar view to getting rich off selling the rights to sell the program. The Prices paid for a distributorship and hosted rousing “Dare to Be Great” parties at their house in Madison: a movie projector showed a film on Turner’s rags-to-riches life story, then the prospects shouted Turner lines about standing on your tiptoes and reaching for the stars. By 1971, “Dare to Be Great” had swept through blue-collar neighborhoods across the country, and Turner was profiled in Life magazine. Then he was investigated for running a pyramid scheme and ultimately served five years in prison, and the Prices lost their money.
In the early seventies, Pete Price got a job as a supervisor at the Duke Energy power station in Belews Creek. After that, he became a vice president at Gem-Dandy in Madison, which made men’s accessories like suspenders for socks. Later still, he was a shift supervisor at the Pine Hall brickyard, on the Dan River near Mayodan. But every time, he got fired by a boss he considered less intelligent than himself, or, more likely, he quit. Quitting became a habit, “just like a crease in your britches,” Dean said. “Once that crease is there it’s virtually impossible to get it out. That’s the way it was with failure to him, and you could not get it out of him. He thought it, he breathed it, he lived it.” The crease started on the Price tobacco farm, where Dean’s father received a disadvantaged piece of land that had no road frontage. Dean’s uncles ended up doing much better in farming. He also suffered from little man’s disease—he stood five seven and a half—and it didn’t help that he lost his hair early. But the biggest failure came in the work that meant the most to Pete Price.
Decades later, Dean kept a black-and-white picture in a frame on his fireplace mantel. A boy with a bowl of shiny black hair cut straight above his eyes, wearing a dark suit with narrow pants that were too short for him, was squinting in the sunlight and hugging a Bible against his chest with both arms, as if for protection. Next to him stood a little girl in a lace-collared dress. It was April 6, 1971. Dean was a few weeks shy of eight, and he was about to give his life to Jesus and be saved. During the seventies, Dean’s father had a series of small churches in little towns, and in each church his dogmatism and rigidity created a rift in the congregation. Each time, the church members voted on whether to keep him as their preacher, and sometimes they went for him and sometimes against him, but he always ended up leaving (for he would get restless, he wanted to be a Jerry Falwell, leading a church that had thousands of members) with hard feelings on all sides. Eventually he had trouble getting another church. He would visit a new town and try out for the job by preaching a sermon, always fire and brimstone, only to be voted down. There was one church in particular, Davidson Memorial Baptist Church, down in Cleveland County, which he’d had his heart set on, and after failing to get that pulpit he never really recovered.
From his father Dean acquired ambition and a love of reading. He went straight through the family’s set of World Book encyclopedias from beginning to end. One night at dinner, when he was around nine or ten, the subject of his ambitions for the future came up. “Well, what do you want to do?” Dean’s father said with a sneer.
“I’d like to be a brain surgeon, a neurologist,” Dean said. It was a word he’d learned in the encyclopedia. “That’s really what I think I’d like to do.”
His father laughed in his face. “You got as much chance of being a neurologist as I’ve got to flying to the moon.”
Dean’s father could be funny and kindhearted, but not with Dean, and Dean hated him for being a quitter and for being cruel. He heard his father preach many sermons, even a few on street corners in Madison, but on some level he didn’t believe them because the meanness and the beatings at home made his father a hypocrite in the pulpit. As a boy, Dean loved baseball more than anything else. In seventh grade he was intimidated by girls, and at ninety pounds soaking wet he was too skinny to play football, but he was a pretty good shortstop at Madison-Mayodan Middle School. In 1976 there were black and white boys on the team, and his father didn’t want him around the black boys. To get Dean away from them, and to win points with his congregation of the moment, Dean’s father pulled him out of public school (Dean begged him not to) and sent him to Gospel Light Christian, a strict, all-white Independent Fundamental Baptist school in Walkertown, a two-hour bus ride from the parsonage on Mayodan Mountain where the Prices then lived. That was the end of Dean’s baseball career, and of his black friends. When Dean was in tenth grade, his father started teaching American and Bible history at Gospel Light, and it would have been easy enough for him to let Dean play baseball after school and then drive the boy home at the end of the day, but his father insisted on leaving school at three o’clock so he could go home and read in his study. It was as if Dean was the competition in the family, and his father had the upper hand and wouldn’t give an inch.
When Dean was seventeen, his father quit the church on Mayodan Mountain and moved the family out to the eastern part of the state, near Greenville, where he took the pulpit of a small church in the town of Ayden. It was his last one. After four months there, Minister Price was sent packing, and the family went back to Rockingham County. They had very little money and moved into Dean’s mother’s family house on Route 220, outside the little town of Stokesdale, a few miles south of Madison. Dean’s grandmother Ollie Neal lived in an apartment they had built in back, and behind the house was the tobacco farm that his grandfather, Birch Neal, had won in a card game in 1932, when Route 220 was a dirt road.
By then, Dean wanted only to escape his father’s dominion. When he turned eighteen, he drove to Winston-Salem and met with a Marine recruiter. He was supposed to return the next morning to enlist, but overnight he changed his mind. He wanted to see the world and live life to its fullest, but he would do it on his own.
At the time Dean graduated from high school, in 1981, the best job around was making cigarettes at the huge R.J. Reynolds factories in Winston-Salem. If you got a job there you were set for life, with good pay and benefits plus two cartons of cigarettes a week. That’s where the B students ended up. The C and D students went to work at the textile mills, where the pay was lower—DuPont and Tultex in Martinsville, Dan River in Danville, Cone in Greensboro, or one of the smaller mills around Madison—or in the furniture factories down in High Point and up in Martinsville and Bassett, Virginia. The A students—three in his class—went to college. (Thirty years later, at his high school reunion, Dean found that his classmates had grown fat and were working in pest control or peddling T-shirts at carnivals. One guy, a career employee at R.J. Reynolds, had lost a job he’d believed to be secure and never got over it.)
Dean never applied himself in school, and the summer after graduating he got a job in the shipping department of a copper tube factory in Madison. He made damn good money for 1981, but it was the kind of job he’d always feared ending up in—the lifers around him with no ambition, spending their days talking about drinking, racing, and fucking. Dean hated it so much that he decided to go to college.
The only one his father would help pay for was Bob Jones University, a Bible school in South Carolina. Bob Jones barred interracial dating and marriage, and in early 1982, a few months after Dean enrolled, the school became national news when the Reagan administration challenged an IRS decision that had denied Bob Jones tax-exempt status. After a storm of criticism, Reagan reversed himself. According to Dean, Bob Jones was the only college in the world where the barbed wire around the campus was turned inward, not outward, like at a prison. The boys had to keep their hair above their ears, and the only way to communicate with the girls on the other side of campus was to write a note and put it in a box that a runner would take from dorm to dorm. The only thing Dean liked about Bob Jones was singing old hymns in morning chapel, like “Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow.” He stopped going to class and failed every course his first semester.
At Christmas, he came home and told his father that he was quitting school and moving out of the house. His father slapped him silly, knocked him to the floor. Dean got up and said, “If you ever touch me again I will kill you, I promise you that.” It was the last time he ever lived under his father’s roof.
After Dean moved out, his father went into a downward spiral. He took oxycodone pills by the handful, for back pain, headaches, and other real or invented ailments, prescribed by a dozen different doctors who didn’t know about the others. Dean’s mother found pills hidden in his suit pockets, stashed away in garbage bags. They gave his father a vacant look and wore away his stomach lining. He would retreat into his study as if to read one of his religious books, but that was where he’d pop some oxycodone and zone out. He was admitted into rehab several times.
Out in the world, Dean went hog wild. He quickly discovered the pleasures of alcohol, gambling, marijuana, fighting, and women. His first girl was a minister’s daughter, and he lost his virginity right under the church piano. He was full of rebellion and wanted no part of his father’s God. “I was a shit-ass,” Dean said. “I had no respect for anybody.” He moved to Greensboro and shared a house with a pothead. For a while he had a job as the assistant golf pro at the Greensboro Country Club for a hundred twenty dollars a week. In 1983, when he was twenty, he decided to go back to college and enrolled at the state university in Greensboro. It took Dean six years of bartending to graduate—at one stage his education was interrupted by a five-month trip with his best friend, Chris, to California, where they lived in a VW bus and pursued girls and good times—but in 1989 he finally earned his degree, in political science.
Dean was a registered Republican, and Reagan was his idol. To Dean, Reagan was like a soothing grandfather: he had that ability to communicate and inspire people, like when he spoke about “a city upon a hill.” It was something Dean thought he could do as well, since he was a good speaker and came from a family of preachers. When Reagan talked, you trusted him, and he gave you hope that America could be great again. He was the only politician who ever made Dean want to become one himself—an idea that ended the week he was busted for smoking pot on the steps of a campus building and arrested a few days later for driving under the influence.
He had told himself that he would see the world, and after graduating, Dean bummed around Europe for a few months, sleeping in hostels and sometimes even on park benches. But he was still ambitious—“insanely ambitious,” he liked to say. When he came home, he decided to look for the best job with the best company that he could find.
In his mind, that had always been Johnson & Johnson, up in New Jersey. The employees at Johnson & Johnson wore blue suits, they were clean, articulate, well paid, they drove company cars and had health benefits. Dean moved to Philadelphia with a girlfriend and set out to meet anyone who worked at the company. His first contact was a fellow with perfectly combed blond hair, in a blue seersucker suit, white shoes, and a bow tie—the sharpest dresser Dean had ever seen. He called the corporate offices almost every day of the week, he went in for seven or eight interviews, he spent a year trying to will himself into a job, and in 1991 Johnson & Johnson finally submitted and made him a pharmaceutical rep in Harrisburg. Dean bought a blue suit and cut his hair short and tried to lose the southern accent, which he thought would be taken for backwardness. He was given a pager and a computer, and he drove around in a company car from one doctor’s office to another, sometimes eight a day, with samples of drugs, explaining the benefits and side effects.
It didn’t take him long to realize that he hated the job. At the end of every day, he had to report back to the office about every stop he’d made. He was a robot, a number, and the company was Big Brother watching. Any personal initiative was frowned on if it didn’t fit the Johnson & Johnson mold. After eight months, less time than he’d spent trying to get the position, Dean quit.
He had bought into a lie: go to college, get a good education, get a job with a Fortune 500 company, and you’d be happy. He had done all that and he was miserable. He’d gotten out of his father’s house only to find another kind of servitude. He decided to start over and do things his own way. He would become an entrepreneur.
Copyright © 2013 by George Packer
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George Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq, which received several prizes and was named one of the ten best books of 2005 by The New York Times Book Review. He is also the author of two novels, The Half Man and Central Square, and two other works of nonfiction, Blood of the Liberals, which won the 2001 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, and The Village of Waiting. His play, Betrayed, ran off-Broadway for five months in 2008 and won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play. His most recent book is Interesting Times: Writings from a Turbulent Decade. He lives in Brooklyn.