Memories of an Appalachian adolescence meshed with analysis of the disaffected white working class, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy has been making the rounds as a primer on the sentiments that have given rise to Donald Trump. It certainly has all the right ingredients: Vance is a white man who grew up poor in Ohio with family roots in Kentucky. His mother struggled with addiction and had a string of bad boyfriends and husbands. Vance was mostly raised by his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw; his sister; and a cast of eccentric aunts and uncles.
Vance’s childhood was chaotic at best, and he might have been headed down the same path as so many of his peers (unemployment, drugs) were it not for Mamaw’s tough love and his spontaneous decision to join the Marines after high school. After the Marines came college, then Yale Law. Then a year clerking, a year lawyer-ing, a year in operations, and then—oh the end. Then this book. Because Vance, now a Silicon Valley investor and contributor to The National Review, is only 31.
Hillbilly Elegy is part translation of, part manifesto on the hillbilly mindset, and Vance expends a lot of pages establishing his own plain-as-pie hillbilly credibility. There are rolling hills and quiet towns, family legends and saucy relatives. And there are Lifetime-movie-ready glimpses of a challenging youth: J.D. hiding behind the furniture while his mother argues with her latest boyfriend; J.D. squirming in the quiet calm of his father’s new family; J.D. skipping school and getting into fights.
Throughout, Vance paints a detailed picture of “hillbillies” writ large (also see: “hill people”), and paints it so earnestly that it almost feels like he’s trying to explain human beings to aliens. Hillbillies are loud; hillbillies argue. Hillbillies don’t talk about their private family dramas outside of their families. Hillbillies are often under-educated. Hillbillies are distrustful of outsiders, and authority. Some hillbillies struggle with addiction. Hillbillies can be close-minded. Hillbillies curse. There are whole swaths of Vance’s book where “hillbillies” could be replaced with a bunch of other demographies and still make sense, but this isn’t their elegy and Vance doesn’t much care. (And maybe he shouldn’t? After all, only one demography is so thoroughly Team Trump.)
When Vance reaches the summit of his personal narrative—the Marines! Yale! marriage! becoming bougie!—he begins to ramp up the analysis, and his critiques become more pointed. Here there’s a little something for everyone. For the personal-responsibility right-wingers, Vance tells low-income middle-Americans to essentially pull up their pants: stop whining, be accountable for your life, work hard, spend wisely, grow up. For liberals, Vance articulates a central GOP flaw exceedingly clearly:
Instead of encouraging engagement, conservatives increasingly foment the kind of detachment that has sapped the ambition of so many of my peers….What separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives. Yet the message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.
So Hillbilly Elegy has moments. But there’s one big problem with Vance’s book: On the whole, it’s just…boring. His insights are few and far between, and the majority of the book—the first two-thirds, really—feels like a hodgepodge of PG-13 anecdotes and half-baked economic analysis, mashed together like an undergrad creative-writing exercise. Vance is a serviceable writer, but hardly a special one, and his family drama is wasted on his ability to describe it. The bits geared at the other end of the spectrum—reporting, investigation, data—are likewise sparse, or half-assed.
Perhaps most irritating, Vance’s hillbilly predicament unfolds in a vacuum. He can tell his hometown is going to shit because the malls are closing (see: all malls in America); he can identify hillbilly malaise because younger people are moving to cities (see: global urbanization). He speaks about his immersion into the upper-crust world of Yale as though only hillbillies feel out of place at swank dinners, or nervous about job interviews, or lucky to go vacations. And again, maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe the fact that working-class whites feel like they’re having a unique experience is what’s important—what decides elections. But it’s still difficult not to read Vance’s assessment of the “uniquely” hillbilly affliction and think: Uh yeah. Welcome to The Struggle.
Here’s the other problem with Hillbilly Elegy: Vance’s solution comes from the same place as his understanding of the problem—himself, his life. In Vance’s story, Vance is the shining example of how discipline and self-actualization can carry a poor boy from the fields of Kentucky to the halls of Yale Law School, and eventually the money-soaked streets of Silicon Valley. Vance’s is the intellectual empowerment and sense of civic duty to which all working-class Americans should aspire. Vance is the star of his own bildungsroman. It’s annoying, and presumptuous, and so very very millennial.
A lot of smart people have really enjoyed this book, and I wanted very much to be one of them. But it just…irked me. In approach, in tone, in execution. Vance’s overarching points have been articulated elsewhere, and perhaps best in 2002 Jennifer Lopez song, “Jenny from the Block.”
Don’t be fooled by the rocks that I got
I’m still, I’m still Jenny from the block
Used to have a little, now I have a lot
No matter where I go, I know where I came from
It take hard work to cash checks
So don’t be fooled by the rocks that I got they assets
You get back what you put out
Even if you take the good route
Can’t count the hood out
TITLE: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
AUTHOR: J.D. Vance
PAGES: 261 (hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: n/a
SORTA LIKE: The Glass Castle meets What’s the Matter with Kansas?
FIRST LINE: “My name is J.D. Vance, and I think I should start with a confession: I find the existence of the book you hold in your hands somewhat absurd.”
2 thoughts on “Hillbilly Elegy is a humblebrag of a memoir”
Thank you for sparing me while entertaining me. So many books – I’ll pass on this one.
I just attended the Southern Festival of Books, at which J.D. Vance was one of the speakers. I had barely heard of this book so did not attend that session. However, one of my friends, a retired teacher in the town where I now live, Oak Ridge, TN, was especially interested in hearing him speak. I have not hooked up with Kay, who is a fellow Democrat, but plan to send your review on to her to see if she concurs. As a probable counterpoint to J.D. Vance’s view of Appalachia, I’m wondering if you’ve read anything by Ron Rash. You can also read about my personal experiences of Appalachia, surface level though they may be, here. https://hbsuefred.wordpress.com/2016/04/13/two-east-tennessee-j-towns/