J.D. Vance is a young American white man who grew up poor. Hillbilly Elegy, his memoir and exploration of the US’s white working class, is probably going to be one of my best books of 2017. Yep, I’m calling it early.
Looking for work and better prospects, JD’s hillbilly grandparents moved from the mountains of Kentucky about three hours north to Ohio, where they lived in a town with a name that would be too ridiculous to use in a novel: Middletown.
In Middletown JD’s mother was born, raised, educated and then effectively lost within a cycle of drugs, men and abuse. JD was raised in the maelstrom of that cycle, saved only from repeating his mother’s mistakes by an older sister who protected him as well as she could and the tough love of his grandparents. And I mean tough. JD was once foolish enough to ask his gun-toting grandmother (called Mamaw) what it felt like to be punched in the face. She socked him one. Turned out it didn’t feel as bad as he thought it might.
Vance lovingly describes his family and his communities (he spent time in both Kentucky and Ohio) but spares nothing of their faults and failings – or his own.
Are we tough enough to look in the mirror and admit our conduct harms our children? Public policy can help but there is no government that can fix these problems for us. Recall how my cousin Mike sold his mother’s house – a property that had been in our family for over a century – because he couldn’t trust his own neighbors not to ransack it. Mamaw refused to purchase bicycles for her grandchildren because they kept disappearing – even when locked up – from her front porch. She feared answering her door toward the end of her life because an able-bodied woman next door who lived next door would not stop bothering her for cash – money, we later learned, for drugs. These problems were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.
Here I disagree with Vance. A living wage for workers and a genuine social safety net would alleviate many of the problems he outlines and there are many examples of Western democracies where this is demonstrably true. But Vance’s focus remains tightly on the US underclass and, despite his blind spots, he shows us a world where even those who escape financial poverty (relatively speaking) fail to escape the emotional poverty of their upbringings. Through Vance we feel what it is to live in a place where you regularly wake to the screams of neighbors, where police regularly dropped by to load someone’s mum or dad into the back of their cruiser. We learn what is to have no hope because of a genuine belief that none of your choices matter.
Vance does not have simple answers to the complex challenges faced by his communities but, on this the eve of Trump’s inauguration, he does provide some insights into what the people who voted for him might have been thinking.
I was on of those kids with a grim future. I almost failed out of high school. I nearly gave in to the deep anger and resentment harbored by everyone around me. Today people look at me, at my job and my Ivy League credentials, and assume that I’m some sort of genius, that only a truly extraordinary person could have made it to where I am today. With all due respect to those people, I think that theory is a load of bullshit. Whatever talents I have I almost squandered until a handful of loving people rescued me.
Fear not. This is not a red, white and blue memoir about living the American dream. Rather it’s a deep and moving and insight into the lived reality of the American nightmare faced by the working poor and by welfare recipients.
It helps that Vance writes like an angel. He deftly captures his characters and the telling details of their lives. He points out the obvious, only to show us that it was far from obvious to a boy brought up like him. He turned up to a job interview wearing combat boots and jeans, simply not realizing that a shirt and tie were expected. It was far cheaper for Vance to study law at Yale than it was at Ohio State because of all the subsidies available to someone from his background but none of the adults in his life knew that. At a fancy dinner hosted by law firms seeking possible recruits, Vance ducked out and rang his girlfriend in a panic to ask why there was so much cutlery on the table and what it was all for.
At a time when it feels like the US is on its way to hell in a handbasket, Hillbilly Elegy skips the clichés about elites and deplorables and shows us something real and true. There are no easy answers, no easy solutions and I fear things will get worse before they get better. But reading this book made me feel that there might just be – maybe, possibly – the beginning of a bridge rather than yet another wall of misunderstanding.
Read it. You won’t be sorry.