Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Vance, a Yale law school graduate, grew up in a hillbilly family, moving back and forth from Kentucky to southwest Ohio. This memoir depicts a largely dysfunctional family and greatly dysfunctional societal milieu. The family he describes includes a mother who marries repeatedly only to repeatedly divorce for such things as stealing her husband’s antiques to support a drug habit. His grandmother curses a blue streak, threatens people at gunpoint with some regularity, vandalizes the store where she thinks a clerk disrespected her grandson by asking him not to break a toy, and she’s the best example in the family. To top that, his family seems to be a notch above the rest of hillbilly culture surrounding them. In Chapter 9 especially he lights into the “culture” with a vengeance, describing a violent society of drug addicts, welfare queens, absentee fathers, sluggards who won’t work hard or stay at a good job, hypocritically religious people who don’t go to church or practice Christian values yet are bigoted against those they think aren’t Christian (like President Obama, who is) and so on.
Vance nearly flunked out of high school in his freshman year but began to excel by his senior year. His SAT scores told him he was college material, but he knew he wasn’t ready and entered the marines instead. Clearly he was right about that and the marines did an admirable job of turning him into a responsible adult. He whizzed through Ohio State and made it to Yale, where he recounts some rather amusing stories of how ignorant he was of middle and upper class values and customs in general. He learned there was more than one kind of white wine. That people wore suits to job interviews.
The book is well-written and held my interest throughout, but it had its drawbacks, too. Much of it is condemnatory toward the community from which he came, but he glosses over his own participation in its darker aspects. He includes his family’s constant F-bombs in his quotes and what most Americans would consider filthy, vulgar, hurtful language yet never quotes his younger self as saying anything other than “yes, sir” or “Yes, ma’am.” Yet he obviously had something of a reputation as hell-raiser. He owns up to some irresponsible or just plain stupid conduct but tends to attribute it to the bad start he got in life (which no doubt is largely true), but a lot of it occurred when he was old enough to know better and take responsibility. He mentions that his community and some of his family were bigoted, but avoids describing how they talked in his family. How many N-words and F-bombs did he drop in his day? I won’t bother with listing specific incidents, but I got a very distinct feeling that he wasn’t giving a fair account; his own part of the blame was seldom brought out. He brags more than is seemly about his very remarkable and admirable academic achievements. The book could use a big deflation in the ego department while the author deserves full credit for his bootstrap success.
Before reading the book, I had a rather unfavorable impression of the Appalachian or hillbilly community but also something of a romanticized view of it. I was willing to view it as a bit rough around the edges and a poorly educated lot, but generally hard-working and salt of the earth kind of down-home folks. I love much of their music. After reading this, that naive view is gone. The community he describes is the trashiest of white trash beyond my worse imagining. They are quite literally the deplorables that Hillary Clinton mentioned and who put Donald Trump in the White House. I will never forgive them for that. Although my opinion is based largely on the portrayal in the book, i.e., on the author’s own words, I have the feeling that the author would take offense at my saying it and want to fight me if I said it to his face. He seems to have a love-hate relationship with his roots and a perverse pride in the very values he decries. He still has his hillbilly values at times, it is clear, as he described how close he came to getting out of his car to fight a driver who flipped him the bird. He can insult his own relatives and own people, but if anyone else does it, them’s fightin’ words. Even his dear Mamaw, although among the best part of the culture, doesn’t escape the white trash rubric in my view. I can assure you of one thing: if I had a magic wand and could instantly swap every Appalachian hillbilly for the refugees from those seven Muslim countries in Trump’s travel ban and all those brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking refugees from the other side of the non-existent wall Trump is pretending to build, I would do it in a heartbeat. The welfare rolls would drop 90%, crime would go down 90%, and a few employers at least would come back to Appalachia.
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