HILLBILLY ELEGY: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is a cri de coeur commenting on the state of affairs in our country, where we are despairing of doing things that our country has frequently done better than anyone else in the world — running honest elections, building bridges, educating ourselves, and being charitable to others less fortunate than ourselves. According to one Senator, and one assumes those he represents as well, we don’t even have enough money to fund healthcare for poor children. We are giving up on the future, greedily consuming everything we have, tearing apart our greatest treasures for fear that the End is near. Or, in the case of J. D. Vance’s people, killing ourselves.
A few years ago, a Ukrainian friend told me that when he goes back to Kiev people treat him like a tourist, though he looks like a Ukrainian. “Why?” I asked him, “Is it because of the way you dress?” “No,” he answered, “it is because I look like I have hope.” Hope is what Americans used to have, and still might have, though there is a big enough block of us that sees only “carnage,” and one fraction of that block is Vance’s subject.
His book is docu-literature, part history lesson and political commentary, part memoir. For life to become art takes a while; Vance’s story is about life. For literary merit, it does not compare to, say, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, by John Steinbeck, another story with a political point about a similar despairing community.
Vance writes, “The statistics tell you that kids like me face a grim future – that if they’re lucky, they’ll manage to avoid welfare; and if they’re unlucky, they’ll die of a heroin overdose, as happened to dozens in my small hometown just last year.” This is the first, and I hope the only, time I will read that becoming an opioid addict is the result of bad luck. In my opinion, their missing ingredient is not luck, it is hope.
Vance’s beloved grandmother, Ma-Maw, threatens to shoot people because they have insulted her grandson. Fortunately, she doesn’t pull the trigger, and nobody calls the cops on her — there exists a law of omertá among Vance’s people. By the end of the book, this reader came to respect Ma-Maw because, at great sacrifice to herself, she stuck with her addicted daughter and struggling grandson until her last breath. She might be a difficult neighbor, though, and I’m not aiming to imitate her brand of bellicosity.
As one of the reviled “Americans” who, he writes, “call [his people] hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash,” I found myself jacking up repeatedly. I am the sort of “American” he objects to for their ignorance of his people’s plight, but I do not call anyone such names, but even if I did, what role would that play in the suicidal spiral of addiction and dysfunction that his people find themselves in? Vance has disdain for me, but I’ll be darned if I can figure out what ill I have brought to his people.
Vance portrays himself and his family as emigrants from their homeland in Kentucky to an Ohio only a few hours’ drive away where they and their ways are strangers. He freely acknowledges that compared to other immigrants — my mind wanders to the Rohingya of Burma, Africans forced from their homes by a ceaseless drought, or the Syrians whose whole towns, neighbors, and families were reduced to dust – they have had it easy. He acknowledges the flaws in his culture, but seems as baffled as the rest of us at its precipitous and devastating decline.
Vance believes that simply telling the story will be helpful, and has become a spokesman for his people. The success of his book has made him a rich man, and to his credit he is using his wealth to be a force for good in the place he came from. Who better than Vance to know what they need?
On visits to the South, I have heard a great deal about the haughtiness and self-satisfaction of “Yankees,” and when Vance refers to “Americans,” that is who he is referring to – the types he met at Yale. He is not criticizing cowboys in Texas or loggers in Oregon. Yankees have accepted the critique of a lot of books that reveal the underside of their own community, from The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, to The Great Gadsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and numerous movies and television programs that are brutally critical. As a Yankee, I have been humbled and informed by these critiques, and there is no reason that I can think of why people like me would not become Vance’s allies as he tries to heal cultural wounds grave enough to make so many people kill themselves.
Vance uses a few brushstrokes to describe his military service. It apparently made a man out of him. This reader, however, is disturbed that Vance feels his only path to making a living is going abroad to kill and disrupt the lives of people whose lot in life is worse than his. He doesn’t give enough information about his service to allow for intellectual engagement on this subject, but he does present it as his escape from hopelessness. For that American soldier, there is more hope in Iraq and Afghanistan than in Ohio.
I hope Vance uses his passion and storytelling to keep us informed of what is going on in his Appalachian or ex-Appalachian community. After reading his book, I wash my hands of responsibility for their woes, which is what he seems to want, but retain an interest in their welfare nonetheless.