book cover imageHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis
by J. D. Vance.
Harper, 2016.
Hardcover, 264 pages, $28.

Whether or not Donald Trump self-destructs on the campaign trail this year, the wave of anger he’s been riding—like the wave enabling the recent Brexit decision in England—is evidently here to stay. Seeing as how this wave makes bedfellows of the Far Left and the Far Right, upsets customary party alignment, and operates according to rules that professional pollsters do not yet understand, the wave’s size frightens card-carrying Democratic and Republican elites who have claimed to speak for the common man when, clearly, they haven’t. A new variety of dispossession has emerged, and as a result all bets (both literal and figurative) are off. Hence it is all but inevitable that if a study of a key component of the newly aroused dispossessed electorate should come along, written by someone who personally bridges the divide and so in some sense resolves the problem causing it, the nation as a whole might breathe a collective sigh of relief.

J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is that book, and—if sales, an appearance on Terri Gross’s Fresh Air, and an adulatory piece by former National Review editor Rod Dreher in the American Conservative are reliable indicators—opinion makers in our nation are breathing that sigh of relief, for J. D. Vance is at once a Yale-trained investment banker who admires Obama, and the son of a heroin addict who was herself the child of gun-toting, Jesus-respecting hill people who were lured from eastern Kentucky coal fields to work in an Ohio steel mill that closed in the mid-eighties, dooming the town in which the mill’s employees lived and giving life to the still-evocative “rustbelt” moniker. What’s more, Vance attempts (actively) to reconcile those two worlds in a book that is everywhere coherent and by turns thoughtful, angry, and funny.

Vance is a fine writer and his memoir would command respect regardless of the political climate during its launch owing to the originality of his analysis (Vance attributes the defection of the white working class from the Democratic party to annoyance with a leadership that supports welfare policies that can be gamed), his honesty regarding dark aspects of the Scots-Irish borderland legacy (particularly the use of violence in arguments between loved ones), and, too, his discernment of “patterns of deception” that he thinks are infecting hillbilly culture (Vance thinks postulating a “War on Coal” is an effort to “solve the cognitive dissonance between the world we see and the values we preach”).

Nevertheless the sheer multiplicity of ways in which Vance personally straddles the divide now plaguing us is almost made to order, for here is an ex-Marine who proudly defends Appalachian Bible-belt “hollers” (not to mention the now-dispossessed industrial white working class) against classmates at Yale who condescend toward the “guns and religion” electorate, at the same time that he 1) criticizes members of the conservative right who demonize a press that could (in his view) help them hold Internet-enabled conspiracy theories in check, 2) establishes a degree of distance from creationists (like his father) who see evolution as “an ideology to confront rather than a theory to understand,” 3) refuses to blame free-trade agreements for the dysfunction now afflicting the families of laid-off steelworkers, 4) refuses to charge in any way, shape, or form that current-day wealth accumulation patterns are the product of a “rigged” market, and 5) maintains robust belief in the overall health of our American meritocracy despite the continued and carefully maintained existence of social capital that doesn’t show up on balance sheets.

Given those emphases, it is not surprising that Hillbilly Elegy is selling well.

The real question is why the divide between elites and the new dispossessed will probably worsen despite such wonderful proof that it is not in all instances unbridgeable, and here Vance’s book falls a little short, for single-parent families, income segregation, and the inability of social services organizations to make allowances for the clan aspect to Appalachian families are insufficient as full-scale explanations for the increasing severity of the divide. Might it not have been wise to at least mention Robert Reich’s theory that the free aspect to the market is broken owing to ways in which rules that govern contract, monopoly, and copyright law now favor large corporations and allow for profit-maximization maneuvers that amount, essentially, to what Reich calls “pre-market upward distributions”? Or perhaps discuss the differences between Scots-Irish borderland conceptions of freedom, and the more ordered freedom visualized by John Adams? This criticism is to a certain extent unfair given that Vance set out to write a memoir and not a treatise, but one can’t help but wish that he had in some way pushed his readers to be a little less comfortable than his own story suggests they ought to be. Upon further reflection, though, it does become apparent that, thanks to the starring role of his exquisitely unreconstructed (and dearly loved) politically incorrect grandmother, Vance’s book does succeed quite well as a guide to the sort of mental disposition that inclines people to at least consider casting a vote for man like Trump.

Grandma Bonnie, or Mamaw as she was known to Vance, “came from a family that would shoot at you rather than argue with you.” Mamaw herself shot a man when she was only twelve, after seeing him trying to steal the family cow from her home beside a creek in a Jackson, Kentucky holler, and she was apparently ready to finish the job by shooting the would-be thief in the head before her uncle intervened. She got pregnant when she was thirteen, got married after her pregnancy began to show, and then rather quickly emigrated north to Middletown, Ohio (the year was 1947), where her seventeen-year-old husband found employment at Armco Steel and she herself set about raising children and (when the mill closed) grandchildren. Though the hardscrabble Appalachian culture that formed Mamaw is now, as Vance shows, failing, Mamaw herself never lost belief in self-reliance and the importance of not blaming others for personal failures to step up to a proverbial plate. What’s more, she was able to impart those convictions to her ward. Vance says she was the single most stabilizing force in his life, which can seem paradoxical given her fiery temperament.

“Fucking zoning laws,” she used to say when neighbors got flagged for raising chickens in a back yard. “They can kiss my ruby red asshole.” Upon learning that some of J. D.’s seventh grade friends were smoking pot, she made sure he quit socializing with them by promising she’d run the friends over with her car if J. D.continued to spend time with them (“No one would ever find out, she whispered menacingly”). When J. D., as an adolescent, wondered out loud if preferring the company of men to women meant he was gay, she asked him whether he wanted to engage in certain sexual activities with men. Of course not, he said, flabbergasted. “Then you’re not gay. And even if you did want to [!^#&!!*], that would be okay. God would still love you.” Once she poured gasoline over J. D.’s grandfather when he came home drunk one time too many against orders, even going so far as to drop a lighted match on his chest. When it came time for J. D. to face down bullies in school, it was Mamaw who coached J. D. on etiquette: don’t fight unless you have to, but when you do make sure things get done fast and pivot from the hip. Yet it was also Mamaw, perhaps not so paradoxically, who was best able to ensure peace and quiet in the home over the long haul. After one particularly hard run of disappointments for J. D. and his sister when they were teenagers, J. D. remembers his grandmother saying, “We’re fine, goddammit. Don’t you know Jesus rides in the car with me?”

So far as I can tell, these anecdotes convey all by themselves at least half of what English shopkeepers and unemployed American factory workers not unreasonably hunger for when they revolt against the bureaucrats of Brussels and Washington. Truth and correctness need not function as different lodestars, and it is to Vance’s very great credit that readers of Hillbilly Elegy will in all likelihood close his book with this latter, game-changing fact fully in view. Will readers take full advantage of the vantage point offered to them by Vance and start to wonder, perhaps for the first time, whether “protectionism” and “free trade” ought to function as mutually exclusive categories? Time will tell.  

Will Hoyt (who moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to the Ohio hill country about the same time that J. D. Vance started planning his move from Ohio to the San Francisco Bay) operates an inn for oil and gas workers near Wheeling, West Virginia.