Kelly Sen’s Review Is In:
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
Hillbilly Elegy. A juxtaposition of words if I ever read one. When I began reading this book my husband asked me, “What exactly is an elegy?” Admittedly, I had a very general and nebulous definition in mind as it is not a word that I encounter often outside the world of funeral homes and churches. Here are two definitions according to Merriam-Webster:
- A song or poem expressing sorrow or lamentation especially for one who is dead
- A pensive or reflective poem that is usually nostalgic or melancholic
J.D. Vance’s bestselling memoir is a glimpse into a rarely discussed slice of society- the Appalachian poor. I would consider his account much more melancholic than nostalgic. We read of his experiences, his struggles and the people that helped him to escape the fate of addiction, unemployment, domestic abuse and so many other ills that afflicted the community in which he grew up. The cast of characters are sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes inspiring. His mother is an on-again-off-again narcotics addict. His sister is thrown into the role of caretaker before she is old enough to drive a car. And then there are J.D.’s true saviors- his Mamaw and Papaw who raised him to value hard work and perseverance. As Mr. Vance details the circumstances surrounding his upbringing I was left with a sense of hopelessness for the many nameless people that he describes and often times derides. Take this description for example.
During my junior year of high school, our neighbor called her landlord to report a leaky roof. The landlord arrived and found her topless, stoned and unconscious on her living room couch. Upstairs the bathtub was overflowing…this is the reality of our community. It’s about a naked druggie destroying what little value exists in her life. It’s about children who lose their toys and clothes to a mother’s addiction.
The memoir is chalk-full of accounts like these and J.D. was one of the children he describes as losing time and again to his mother’s addiction. With a revolving door of men and her unpredictable personality J.D. became accustomed to the drama and he often sought solace at his grandparents’ house.
My critique of the book is that as I read on I began to see the author as pompous, unfeeling and eager to describe problems without any attempt to consider a solution. Perhaps solutions were beyond the reach of this book as it was just a memoir, but I found that by the end of his account Mr. Vance was looking down his nose at the very community with which he purports to identify. I can’t help to think what would have become of him if he wouldn’t have been fortunate to have the support of extended family as so few of his peers did. Consider the following blunt observation:
There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day…what separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives. Yet the message of the right is increasing: It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.
His journey is an impressive one- he completed 4 years with the Marine Corps, received a degree at Ohio State University in less than 2 years and then went on to Yale Law school. My problem with his account is how he seems to claim Hillbilly status as his own while simultaneously shunning those who don’t escape their circumstances as he did. “I am a hill person. So is much of America’s white working class. And we hill people aren’t doing very well….Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family.” Yet, here’s how he describes those very same neighbors, friends, and family:
This was my world: a world of truly irrational behavior. We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads…Thrift is inimical to our being…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…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. Our kids perform poorly at school. We might get angry with them, but we never give them the tools — like peace and quiet at home — to succeed….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 thirty-minute restroom breaks per shift. We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese…We talk to our children about responsibility, but we never walk the walk.
It’s almost as if he wears his history like an honor badge, as part of his mystique. He seems to perceive himself as a mythical creature who somehow escaped the fate of the lazy “losers” he grew up with, bragging about how this history and his socioeconomic status saved him thousands of dollars in tuition at Yale.
Perhaps this review seems a bit harsh and I know it is because I had such high expectations for this memoir. As someone who attended law school and who is familiar with all of the experiences he describes in the latter half of the book, I can’t help but think that Mr. Vance is someone I would have avoided at a law firm happy hour. The real hero of this memoir is not J.D., the young man who pulled himself up by his bootstraps to rise above the fray and become a white collar juggernaut at the tender age of 31, but his firm and persistent Mamaw. She taught him grit and persistence and gave him a soft place to land when his life was completely out-of-control. Hillbilly Elegy is an interesting read, but instead of making me think it just made my sigh.