Hillbilly Elegy

What an irritating book!

Even if you haven’t read Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, you’ve probably at least heard of it, as it made quite a splash when it came out last year and stayed on the best-seller list for weeks and weeks.

So…“irritating,” I say. For a while I wasn’t even sure whether I would want to finish it.

Then for a while I thought that it was just nuanced and I must have been missing the point.

Finally, I thought it was merely confused, and the point was all too clear.

The subtitle is A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. In case you haven’t heard, this is a memoir of a lawyer who grew up in eastern Kentucky and southern Ohio (see map), then escaped the culture of Appalachia by attending and graduating from Ohio State, and finally went on to Yale Law School and became a practicing attorney. Vance makes the legitimate point that the general public is aware of the problem of poverty among non-whites in the inner city but most people don’t realize the problem of poverty among whites in rural areas, especially Appalachia.

OK. Fine.

But then consider the following paragraph from the middle of the book, where Vance writes about the tile warehouse where he held his first job:

The problems that I saw at the tile warehouse run far deeper than macroeconomic trend and policy. Too many young men immune to hard work… A young man with every reason to work… carelessly tossing aside a good job with excellent health insurance. More troublingly, when it was all over, he thought something had been done to him. There is a lack of agency here — a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself.

Blaming the victim? Sure looks like it. Yes, “a willingness to blame everyone but yourself” is distressingly adolescent behavior for adults, but Vance is supposedly expressing love for the same family and friends whom he disparages like this. That’s why I was torn between “nuanced” and “confused” to describe his approach.

Then we get this bit of commentary:

To many analysts, terms like “welfare queen” conjure unfair images of the lazy black mom living on the dole… I have known many welfare queens; some were my neighbors, and all were white.

OK, I agree that the Reaganesqure image “of the lazy black mom living on the dole” is unfair, and it’s legitimate for Vance to point out that most “welfare queens” are white (if the term means anything). But the tone of that last sentence is just so offensive.

So maybe it’s not his neighbors’ fault. Maybe they don’t have the advantages that Vance’s classmates at Yale Law had. Describing his interviews for post-law-school jobs, he hits the nail on the head:

Virtually everyone who plays by the rules fails. That week of interviews showed me that successful people are playing an entirely different game. They don’t flood the job market with résumés, hoping that some employer will grace them with an interview. They network. They email a friend of a friend to make sure their name gets the look it deserves. They have their uncles call old college buddies… They have parents tell them how to dress, what to say, and whom to schmooze.

Even though I never went to law school, I know exactly what he means. The whole paragraph is pretty close to describing my experience when I entered the job market. It’s unfair. At this point I say to myself “Vance is being surprisingly insightful for a Republican.” And a Republican he is, as he makes very clear.

So then we’re back to blaming the victim:

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, often leaving them full of garbage in our wake. Thrift is inimical to our being. We spend to pretend we’re upper-class…

Our homes are a chaotic mess. We scream and yell at each other like we’re spectators at a football game. At least one member of the family uses drugs — sometimes the father, sometimes the mother, sometimes both. At especially stressful times, we’ll hit and punch each other, all in front of the rest of the family, including young children…

We don’t study as children, and we don’t make our kids study when we’re parents… We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs. Sometimes we’ll get a job, but it won’t last. We’ll get fired for tardiness, or for stealing merchandise and selling it on eBay, or for having a customer complain about the smell of alcohol on our breath, or for taking five 30-minute restore breaks per shift.

Wow! Not only back to blaming the victim, but so much self-hatred, so much tarring the whole region with a broad brush. I won’t even get into Vance’s views on religion, or his explanations of why Appalachia contained the highest amount of Trump voters in the nation. How do I make sense of this mishmash? Do I now have a deeper understanding of the problems of rural America? Will you, if you read Hillbilly Elegy? (Closing remark: I assume that Vance is trying to reclaim the slur “hillbilly” as so many other groups have reclaimed terms that were used as slurs, like “queer.”)

Categories: Books, Life