Review: ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I may have learned as much about myself from “Hillbilly Elegy” as I did about J.D. Vance’s family and upbringing.

The book is fairly straightforward. Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio, about midway between Cincinnati and Dayton but – thanks to the hillbilly migrants who came to work at the local steel plant — more like the hollers of Jackson, Kentucky, where his family is from. And what a family, gripped by violence, alcoholism and loss.

And yet Vance loves them. He loves his mom, an alcoholic and sometime drug addict who went through boyfriends like Kleenex. He loves his Mamaw and Papaw, who started their long marriage as teenagers at each other’s throats and only in their last years came to represent some kind of stability. He loves returning to Jackson, despite its emptiness and sadness, and he defends his fellow hillbillies – it’s not a pejorative in Vance’s telling, simply a word – with the loyalty they’re known for.

But he’s not blind to their faults.

“The truth is hard, and the hardest truths for hill people are the ones they must tell about themselves,” he writes at one point.

And: “This was my world: a world of truly irrational behavior. We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy.”

And: “Barack Obama strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities. He is a good father while many of us aren’t. … His wife tells us that we shouldn’t be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it – not because we think she’s wrong but because we know she’s right.”

I give Vance credit. A lot of credit. This is a man who escaped a dim future in Middletown – partly thanks to Mamaw, who took him in for his last three years of high school and gave him needed stability – for the Marine Corps, Ohio State University and Yale Law. But I also give him credit for not turning his back on his past. He is loyal, after all.

I mentioned that this book made me learn about myself. I’m city-born and –bred: New York, New Orleans, Atlanta. I’m a Jewish man who prizes education and intellect and couldn’t live (or hunt) in great open spaces if you spotted me a small house and fencing. I have little understanding, in so many ways, of rural America, and that’s despite half a lifetime lived in Georgia (though rarely stopping in small towns for more than a couple days).

I’m also not as empathetic as I believed; I probably have more feeling for the urban poor – usually people of color – than I do for Vance’s countrymen. After all, Vance’s people are white. They’re the majority demographic in this country, and certainly in their communities. They already have advantages, don’t they?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Certainly not in Vance’s telling. He describes how it was the Marine Corps that taught him how to keep a checkbook and how to shop around for loans, how to dress for an interview and how to take the lead. The people back in Middletown and Jackson may work hard – many of them, anyway – but they’re lost in the world. Hell, they’re lost to each other.

There’s been a lot of interest in “Hillbilly Elegy” because it seems to describe Trump voters, and many non-Trump voters are desperate to understand who the hell these people are. I’m not so sure of this – many Trump voters proved to be more well-off than many people in Vance’s clan – but it certainly describes a certain kind of isolated American, one who now can pull up the Internet and see a very different country. Perhaps that’s been the case for a few generations – after all, somebody was reading Life magazine in the 1940s – but I imagine that different (multicultural, East and West Coast-dominated) country seems a lot nearer now than it did in the radio or three-network era. Meanwhile, there are other challenges: jobs, education, basic services.

I struggled with “Hillbilly Elegy” for practically its entire first half. I thought Vance’s writing bordered on the overly sentimental, much the way J.R. Moehringer gave in to the same emotion in “The Tender Bar.” In the second half, when Vance is more or less on his own, there’s less romanticism, more … well, not skepticism, but perhaps detachment.

We also don’t agree much politically – he’s a conservative, I’m a liberal — but I do think he’s right about solutions: that there aren’t any, certainly no one-size-fits-all. (I may be liberal, but I’m also pragmatic.)

Still, I can’t deny “Hillbilly Elegy” moved me. Like Vance, I don’t know what the answer is for the troubles of the Appalachians. I don’t even know if there IS an answer. But he’s raised some profound questions, and put a lot of heart into telling his story. It’s not the last word by any means, but it’s one worth reading.

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