Two-thirds of the way through George Packer’s harrowing and magisterial account of post-2008 America, we meet a Florida boat builder named Jack Hamersma ”“ a rough-hewn, working-class guy who’d climbed up the economic ladder only to find himself drawn into the maelstrom of the real-estate speculation that destroyed huge tracts of suburbia in the wake of the Lehman Brothers collapse.
Like thousands of naÃ¯ve speculators ”“ the 1920s-era shoeshine boys with the hot stock tip ”“ Hamersma’s savings were tied up in a heavily mortgaged house that lost most of its value after the bubble burst. With repo men circling and foreclosure looming, he retained Matthew Weidner, a small-time Florida lawyer (think Paul Newman in The Verdict) to defend him against the venality of a banking sector that imploded after an orgy of deregulated and frequently fraudulent greed.
The lawyer was able to keep the lenders from foreclosing on Hamersma. But as lawsuit dragged on, Hamersma’s life unwound into insolvency and costly cancer diagnoses. “That happened a lot to Weidner’s clients ”“ the job, the house, their health, usually in that order,” writes Packer, a New Yorker staff writer, novelist and playwright. “Weidner watched Jack shrink before his eyes, dropping a hundred pounds until, three years after that first consultation, he limped into the office one afternoon to discuss his case, wasted legs sticking out of his shorts, a canvas bag hanging over his shoulder, from which a drip tube extended under a bandage on his chest.”