Rating: 3/5 stars
Like many folks in the past few weeks, I stumbled upon J.D. Vance’s nonfiction book and memoir Hillbilly Elegy on a list of ‘best books to understand the 2016 election’ written likely by The New York Times or another similarly eminent publication. In reading it, I hoped to glean an unfiltered, insightful perspective of someone who is from and still holds a deep emotional attachment to his home in Appalachia.
By that metric, the book succeeded — with a few disappointing caveats. Vance gives a honest personal account of everything from witnessing his mother’s drug abuse to the screaming fights of his neighbors to the enduring love of his Mamaw (grandma) that gave him a pathway to great success as a Yale Law student. (Mamaw is awesome and by far the best character in the book, by the way. I would have read this book just to hear her swear like a sailor; gruffly, yet lovingly push Vance to become educated and achieve something more than a hillbilly life; and threaten those who dared hurt her family.) The book offers both a deeply unflattering and at times, heartwarming look at the people that he calls his friends and family as an insight more broadly into the culture of white working-class Appalachia.
The writing isn’t earth-shattering by any means, but then again, I didn’t open it up expecting literary flash, but rather, interesting substance. As a minor critique: the book can get a little repetitive at times in its storytelling. But I think I was more disappointed in the content, in part because I was hoping for something more than memoir. Had the book combined his powerful story with compelling academic analysis, it might have been more well-rounded and meaningful than a simple narrative account.
The book wasn’t written with the intent to explain the ‘working class Trump voter’ to the liberal masses — even though it’s since been interpreted by much of the mainstream media to be just that — but Vance did seek to shed light on the culture of Appalachia, of how people who live in the Rust Belt behave and why, even if their behavior seems to run counter to their best interests. I would say he succeeded somewhat in making us more aware of and empathetic towards working class Appalachia. However, the end result is often a one-note picture of people who often act in horrible ways to those around them, entrapped by the harshness of their circumstances and being unwilling to rise above them. Still, it’s hard to dismiss, because it is Vance’s own lived narrative.
True, Vance does offer some answers to questions like ‘how do we help ameliorate the situation in Appalachia?’ with some no-nonsense talk against condescending paternalism — which white-collar America is all-too prone to offer up in discussions of blue collar workers — and failed, if well-intentioned, government policies to help the poor. And yet, he offers no tangible solutions as alternatives to the government policies that he bitterly derides.
For example: I almost laughed at his chiding of politicians who set forth legislation to curb payday lending — predatory loans offered at exorbitantly high-interest rates to primarily low-income folks that often leaves them trapped in spiraling debt. He justifies his support of a horrible practice like this by citing how payday loans helped him get over a short-term economic windfall without any long-term debt. This is a case where anecdotal evidence slips dangerously into a generalization that I would strongly wager is not true for many working class individuals — something which Vance tends to do throughout the book.
The biggest critique though: At the end of the book, you’re often left with the feeling of despair; this is just the way it is in this part of the country, and absent the love and support of key familial figures that Vance was lucky to have in his life, most young working class people in Appalachia have little chance of making it out of there. And that’s a tough, maybe overly simplistic pill to swallow for most readers — especially for a policy wonk like me fresh out of Washington, DC — even though it’s the primary takeaway from the book.