A Confused Hillbilly

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis     JD Vance     (2016)


JD Vance’s social analysis of “hillbilly culture,” using the lens of his own life story, has been widely credited with explaining why white working-class Americans voted for Donald Trump in November 2016. Vance’s book also topped several bestseller lists in 2016, and it’s been praised by political commentators on both the right and the left. I wanted to see what all the hype was about, so I checked Hillbilly Elegy out from my local library.

Hillbilly Elegy is meant to be both a memoir and a cultural commentary. The memoir component  is an “up by the bootstraps” tale of a boy overcoming incredible odds to escape from the dying Rust Belt city of Middletown, Ohio, in the early years of the current century. Vance is raised primarily by his maternal grandparents—“Mamaw” and “Papaw” in hillbilly parlance—since his mother is a substance abuser who cycles through five husbands and innumerable short-term boyfriends. The foul-mouthed but loving Mamaw is a strong influence on the young JD; she emphasizes the importance of education and shields him from many of his mother’s violent episodes. Vance graduates from high school, joins the Marines, serves in the Iraq war, gets through college at Ohio State in record time, goes on to Yale Law School, meets a brilliant and kindly woman who becomes his wife, and ends up working for a Silicon Valley investment firm.

Despite the jerky narrative style and the many clichés in the memoir portions of this book, I was drawn to some parts of the story. Vance’s experience in the Marines, for example, is a turning point in his life: “It was in the Marine Corps where I first ordered grown men to do a job and watched them listen; where I learned that leadership depended far more on earning the respect of your subordinates than on bossing them around; where I discovered how to earn that respect; and where I saw that men and women of different social classes and races could work as a team and bond like family.” (175) He cites specific incidents that taught him how to control his temper and interact peaceably with others.

Periodically Vance inserts into his memoir paragraphs of polemic against hillbillies, in the form of disconnected soapbox orations about working-class white people in Appalachia, the South, and the Rust Belt, whose culture “increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” (7) Throughout the book, Vance presents the tendency to explosive interpersonal reactions as one reason for the low economic status of people of his background. He asks plaintively, “How much of our lives, good and bad, should we credit to our personal decisions, and how much is just the inheritance of our culture, our families, and our parents who have failed their children? How much is Mom’s life her own fault? Where does blame stop and sympathy begin?” (231)

Vance freely admits that he doesn’t have the answers to these questions, yet he presents contradictory arguments. He rails against lazy hillbillies who are “living off of government largesse” (139), not mentioning the fact that able-bodied adults haven’t been eligible for cash welfare for more than two decades. Vance doesn’t count himself as a recipient of “government largesse” even though he’s benefited from public schools, a public university, the GI Bill, and Pell grants. He assumes that hillbillies are the only people who’ve suffered from the loss of jobs that provide a middle-class lifestyle, when the millennial children of white professionals have endured similar downward mobility.

There is no discussion of the tremendous rise in income inequality in our country, and Vance ignores the plight of non-white working-class Americans. Significantly, he fails to address racism as a factor in the bitterness of the white working-class. (For a first-hand account of this racism, I can refer you to an African American friend of mine who was raised  in the same Middletown, Ohio, as JD Vance.) There’s a constant underlying assumption in Hillbilly Elegy that white working-class hillbillies are the only Americans who grow up in poverty-stricken or violent families. And that these hillbillies are the only ones who might be nonplussed by the elitism of the Ivy League and Wall Street. It ain’t so, JD.

Vance treasures his hillbilly background and yet despises it. He hasn’t quite figured out where he stands, though he aligns himself politically with conservative Republicans. Hillbilly Elegy is an imperfect book, with far too many contradictions and generalizations and cherry-picked citations. But you may want to read it because it’s become a highly influential book in our present-day political climate of angry polarization.

Those New York Novels

The Ramblers     Aidan Donnelley Rowley (2016)

(plus brief notes on novels by Adelle Waldman and Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney)

First, a sidebar.

Maybe I should stop reading these inbred New York City novels. Maybe only New Yorkers can sense where the satire starts. But I read a lot of fiction, and I’ve taught fiction to a lot of college students, so I should be able to discern satire, right? Even if I’m a Midwesterner?

I look back at a couple of other New York novels. I’m pretty certain that Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. (2013) is sardonically mocking the callous, self-satisfied male New Yorkers who wreak havoc on the psyches of brilliant, sensitive female New Yorkers. Waldman’s view into this world is morbidly fascinating but morbid nonetheless.

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest (2016) is less clear on the satire front. Four siblings fight over their inheritance, which has been greatly depleted by a payout to cover up a crime by one of the brothers. Should I care about the quarrels of these disagreeable, money-grubbing characters, even if the plot is a tight one? Am I supposed to care, or am I supposed to recoil in horror?

This issue is not settled, but let’s move on to the main review.

The Ramblers, by Aidan Donnelley Rowley (2016), brings us three more New Yorkers who have too much money and too many drinks. Admittedly, Clio Marsh was born middle class, but she’s pulled herself up by the proverbial bootstraps to earn a PhD in ornithology. And she lives nearly rent-free as roommate to Smith Anderson, a daughter of the 1% who declutters the Manhattan apartments of her private clients. The third profiled character is Tate Pennington, who has accidentally made a fortune in the tech world and retired to New York to take street photographs and escape his estranged wife in California.

All three are in their mid-30s, yet they prate endlessly about their undergraduate days together at Yale and enter into petty squabbles about the relative advantages of Princeton. Really? So you’ve read Foucault. I’m not impressed, though I think that the author, herself a Yalie, expects her readers to be.

Because the three protagonists are in their mid-thirties, they all long to be in committed relationships. This is a standard feature of the modern New York novel, though it’s usually only the women or the gay men who crave a long-lasting, monogamous marriage. The entire plot of The Ramblers revolves around the achievement of perfect domestic partnerships, but I couldn’t feel much sympathy for these three privileged strivers. They’re stock characters in a flat drama. Clio worries that the revelation of her mother’s mental illness and suicide will derail her affair with a wealthy bachelor fifteen years her senior. Smith won’t distance herself from her malicious father, even though this creepy father browbeat her fiancé into breaking up with her. And Tate salves the wounds made by his unfaithful wife with excessive amounts of alcohol, but he still shoots stunning photos.

The dialogue of the thirty-something women in The Ramblers does have sparkle, but when I hit some scenes with older women or with men (older or not), I found myself stopped mid-page by the inaptness of tone and the cliché-ridden sentences. Wait, I thought, is the author satirizing this character? We’re back to that issue of inadvertent satire again.

If I’m so irritated by these self-aggrandizing characters and their $30 bottles of organic hair conditioner, why do I keep reading New York novels? Why did I ever get past page 50 of The Ramblers? Simple: I have a weakness for the New York part.

For instance, the title of The Ramblers refers to an area in Central Park called The Ramble, a semi-wild nature area in the middle of Manhattan, popular for those seeking outdoor gay sex, which has also become a favored site for birdwatchers. The character Clio leads public birding tours through The Ramble on Sunday mornings and gets written up in the local press. Tate, meanwhile, is a walking guide book to the poetic and architectural history of the city, seeking out the haunts of Stanley Kunitz and Dylan Thomas. Smith’s sister gets married in the cavernous, barrel-vaulted St. Bart’s Episcopal Church, with the reception at the ultra-glamorous Waldorf. The action of the novel takes place during the week of Thanksgiving, so the author can call up glorious late autumn days as well as the edge of silver-bell cheeriness for the upcoming Christmas season. In sum, the NYC of The Ramblers is more vividly portrayed than its inhabitants.

True, for heavy New York atmosphere, you can’t beat author Jay McInerney, and I’ve acknowledged this in a recent blog post reviewing his 2016 novel Bright, Precious Days. I detect satire in some of McInerney’s characters, but he fleshes them out so well and surrounds them with so much New York detail that I tumble right into their lives nonetheless.

And for a weekly dose of New York, I turn to the New Yorker. I can imagine myself at the openings of art exhibits and plays listed at the front and then settle in for some serious journalism, not necessarily about New York, by writers like Adam Gopnik, Joan Acocella, Jill Lepore, Hilton Als, Larissa MacFarquhar, Elizabeth Kolbert, Kalefa Sanneh, Jane Mayer, and Ryan Lizza. Gotta love it.