Sunday, October 8, 2017

"Hillbilly Elegy" by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy is everywhere. I'd been on the library hold list for it for months, as the word was that Vance's memoir would explain how Trump got elected. Beyond that, I really was interested in a sociological look at the white, Appalachia poor--a group that exists on the far fringes of my life in privileged suburban Ohio.

Instead, I got an straightforward memoir of Vance's hillbilly life, one far harder and more difficult than my own but also (by his own admission) less desperate than others' (e.g. he was never physically abused or malnourished). It wasn't a bad story, but it was a boring story. It's a traditional rags-to-riches tale, albeit with a focus on how hillbilly culture impedes upward mobility. As long-form journalism, I might have been engaged, but in book form, the challenges and lessons of Vance's upbringing quickly felt repetitive. Without any particular revelations--or at least some stunning prose--I wasn't sure why I was still reading.

Some of my disappointment is probably not with the book itself. As far as I know, Vance never claimed to reveal the truth of Trump voters (his book was published before Trump won). And in the introduction, he clearly states that although he references some research, his book is first and foremost a personal memoir. So my real complaints are with the hype surrounding the book, not Vance himself.

However, even taking the book solely for what it is, Hillbilly Elegy still feels hollow. Many of his main points--that success is difficult in an unstable home life; that addiction destroys families; that having a reliable and loving support network is key to breaking out--won't come as a surprise to anyone. I suppose the point did reinforce to me another way in which I'm privileged. I rarely saw my parents argue, and I never saw them yell, name call, or be violent. So it's no surprise that I conduct myself similarly in my relationships. And even when I do argue with loved ones, it's with the full understanding that no argument will ever end the relationship, a belief that would be hard to sustain if I was on husband #5.

Vance does make some interesting points about the ways in which our country tries to help the poor. He suggests that our single-minded focus on job creation often obscures the fact that many poor haven't learned how to be successful in a steady job. Or that emphasizing college entrance doesn't ensure the poor can complete college. In fact, it's likely that without Vance's four-year military experience, he would not have had the discipline to be successful when he later went to OSU and Yale Law. And he points out that knowledge that's obvious to me--that, for example, high-achieving, low-income students pay less to attend a prestigious school than a mid-tier school--is often not obvious to hillbillies like himself.

But these ideas are confined mostly to the single story of Vance's achievement, which limits their impact on a broader conversation about how to combat poverty. At its core, Vance's book suggests government intervention will do little without cultural intervention, but he's not able to name how that would happen. Some of his most interesting theses--particularly his short section on why national pride is so important to hillbillies--are especially relevant now in light of the controversy over the National Anthem, but again there was much too little.

In the end, I wanted research and statistics; sociological and psychological analysis--not a single individual's story. I recently finished Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy, which used one person's story as a narrative thread to connect research and others' stories. That's what would have made Hillbilly Elegy work for me.

Stray thought: Vance included what is now one of my favorite sentences, from a professor's critique of one of his essays: "This is a vomit of sentences masquerading as a paragraph."