George Packer's judgment often proves too nuanced by half
Writings from a Turbulent Decade
by George Packer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$28.00 List Price
George Packer, a staff writer for the New Yorker since 2003, is plainly a master of his craft. The eight years' worth of reporting collected in his new anthology, Interesting Times—culled from the New Yorker as well as several other general-interest magazines—showcases his eye for the telling detail: "The children's legs swelled for lack of salt," he notes in recounting the plight of a family from Sierra Leone chased into the bush by marauding rebels. The anthology also nicely points up his ear for the cutting and memorable quote: "We're like a frigging organ transplant that's rejected," an army officer says of the United States presence in Iraq.
Packer captures scenes that, particularly in his Iraq reporting, give a hearty sense of the absurd. During a hectic meeting between dueling Sunni and Shiite factions in Iraq, a compulsively optimistic mayor cheerfully informs the participants that assembling at all is a triumph, a point he repeats even as the meeting descends into increasingly bitter recriminations. And no matter the topic—the journey of a secondhand T-shirt through the global economy, the unrelenting growth of an African megalopolis, or the ambivalence and desperation of Ohio's white working class—the pieces read effortlessly. As most publishing enterprises wage a Hobbesian battle for the ever-narrowing attention spans of their readers, Packer lets his material steadily widen its scope and teases out implications well beneath a story's surface conflicts.
And that's where things in Interesting Times begin to go awry. Packer doesn't present himself simply as a