Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
So here's the scene: My Yale Law grad daughter and her new Yale Law grad husband gave me this book for Christmas - hardcover, even though they know I'm moving down the social scale and plan to boondock in the flyover states and won't have weight margins for bookshelves, nevermind hardcover. I think maybe it's like bear-bating, that I'll offer back an incisive complaint about some aspect that bugs me. They know me well. And they'll get it back to read, along with a handy readers guide.
I'm in a state, sure, staying safe in Canada in the family's deteriorating one-time summer home which I put in shape some eons ago when my parents were more vital, and perhaps younger than I am now. I feel out of place here, since the whole business of summer places is way above my pay grade, and I'm annoyed that nature is taking her course with something whose value is between me and retirement one step above trailer trash. I want to wash my hands of the whole dirty business, though the family was never wealthy. Hard-working lawyers, scientists, engineers and only a few ne'er do wells on any side.
I got myself ready for my read - mostly beneath consciousness - by resolving not to provision the house which should have been shuttered by now. Pipes should be drained and antifreeze applied, but what with global warming and my cheapness it's been kept open at least partly on my behalf; Too cheap to come "home" otherwise, and no other family home with beds not spoken for or boundaries of intimacy I'd be willing cross. We are not hillbillys, alas, at least not anymore.
Somehow eggs remain in the fridge, of utterly indeterminate age, a few hot dog buns, some processed cheese in shrink-wrap of some sort, and miraculously a bag of plain oatmeal. At least regarding the latter, I feel secure. The rest of it proves to be a collective miracle of food preservation chemistry, since as far as I can tell it all tastes the same as it would on day one. God knows how I survived the eggs - I know them to be naturally durable like hillbillys are, tatum! I confess some self-conscious complicity in my unplanned diet as I get into the book.
See, this guy, J.D., is pulling himself up by bootstraps, and I'm dragging myself down, maybe by WASP-guilt, I don't know. But I have more legitimate study of the the sociology he glancingly references than he does, and I've chosen away from personal success, and I see in processed cheese which was - I'm not making this up - invented on the very street where I now write - some glowing metaphor of evil. Ditto Peter Thiel, who he lists as a reader.
So, is he trying to maintain some pride in his accomplishment when he exposes social flaws in the thinking of his peers? Their laziness, their self-destruction. He doesn't quite mention their annoyance with identity politics, because I don't quite get the feeling that this author is informed about real class politics, and Marx's money as a life-force. I don't sense close awareness of history's sweep, and the larger significance of this moment in it.
But I'm not in a great position to be critical. And I have to say that the book is much more than the viral title - good timing with Trump - which I was pretty sure composed the sum total of its best-seller status.
I just didn't learn all that much here. I've lived among Hillbillys of the Western New York variety, and I have a branch of my own nuclear family which was kidnapped by arriviste Hillbillys of a lower and more fallen sort than described here - which is a stunning claim if you read the book - and I have therefore some acquaintance with the dangerous undertow about which Vance writes.
What I quibble with is what he lays out implicitly as constituting success. A bit too much Christianity as though its undoubted social good negates the need for truth value. A bit too much American Dream writ real-estate, but still I take his point.
My neighbor in the hills was a teaparty founder, plenty intelligent, Airforce captian, full of his certainties which sure weren't mine. I still can't just shrug off earnest bearded do-gooder wannabes who maybe swallow conspiracy theory whole too much, the way that Vance does, when the whole power structure plays out to some dimensions of caricature beyond even conspiracy delusions. I mean Trump is going to be our next president, so buy this particular book to understand it?? I guess you could do worse.
I think the better buy might be to document sociologically the insular quality of those who come to their Yale law pedigree by birthright, and then take that to the Council on Foreign Relations and then decide the fate of the hapless Hillbilly masses, not just within our borders, but across the globe, and glibly assume that our current arrangements, including arms sales and deployments to defend our military-industrial-might cannot be tampered with. The emoluments on the inside must be pretty darned nice. Even co-conspirator Hillary got addicted to those drugs. On balance, is heroin worse?
Anyhow, I'm proud that my variously blue and alien-red blooded familiars work for human rights and international legal reform away from the nativism gripping the globe. I think I might know China better than Amy Chua does - not sure - but I hear echos of Tiger Mom mentality here. I am so utterly done with rugged individualistic identity politics as a disguise for blatant lottery arrangements for who gets the prizes, in or out of school, not to mention the costs of membership. I'll take a bit more wealth redistribution and social infrastructure investment, thank you very much. It just doesn't look to me as though grit can get a person all that far, and academic grinds just don't seem all that well-trained in helping the world to a better place.
How about let's redistribute productivity gains to the workers who earned them, and not only to the intellectual property privateers who rake the piles high behind club barriers where the bar for entry is a certain kind of trustworthiness regarding the arrangements. Where supermanager salaries represent the cost of our soul to the rest of us, which just makes them trailer trash too, viz Donald, less the hillbilly honor, of course.
I will eagerly await Vance's next book, after he grows a bit more, and after some closer encounters with those of us headed in the other direction. I think he may not be acquainted with the value of public sanctuary that is not owed - the thing he got from his grandma, and the thing which we withhold from so many and to such an extent that we hardly deserve to be called a nation in any meaningful sense of that word. We sure are powerful though, for the moment.
View all my reviews
I feel bad about this one, since the fellow is so nice and honest in his writing. I think he just simply doesn't notice how fully he's been co-opted by the structure which allowed him, grace SAT perhaps, into the elite circle. He hasn't the discernment, yet, to tell the difference between and among kind professors and gatekeepers. He hasn't quite become the sociologist for the "other" that he has for his own background, though one can forgive him his seduction, forgive the plays made for his sweet soul even, and forgive his repudiation of his native ground. We all commit those same sins all the time. We are all abstractable from our selves, and I don't even believe in a self, abstracted or otherwise.