Book Review -Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Book: Hillbilly Elegy

Author: J.D. Vance

Publisher: William Collins

Released: 2016

Page Count: 277

Format Read: Kindle

TL;DR (Too Long, Didn’t Read): Vance’s story of growing up hillbilly is heralded as a unique insight into the working class mindset that led to Brexit and President Trump. I found it readable and relatable, seeing many parallels with my own experience of the area I grew up. While there were times when Vance’s political bias was glaringly obvious, and times when I would have liked him to be somewhat more self-reflective, he shares a story worth reading, in a way that made it enjoyable.

Review: This book is one of a long line of books that I’ve seen in bookstores, made a note of, and gone home to check the price on Amazon later, which is, I’ll admit, a horrendous habit. That being said, the Kindle price here was only £1.99, which definitely made it more enticing.

I tell you this because on the particular day, and in this particular bookstore, my friend James and I had a long discussion with an elderly gentleman about the evolution of the autobiography. He had picked up a copy of “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah, and I struck up a conversation about how I thought Noah was a very insightful man, based on his work on The Daily Show and a Freakanomics podcast I’d heard him on. The gentleman thanked me for my recommendation, and presented me with a question. What, he wanted to know, was my feeling on the use of dialogue in autobiography?

Admittedly, I’d never had particularly strong feelings on this topic, at least not consciously, but I got the feeling that perhaps this gentleman had a story to tell, and so I obliged. “Well,” I pontificated, “I guess our stories aren’t really our own, are they? Our stories are made up of the cast of characters that fill them, and we’d be remiss to exclude them when we started to write them down, wouldn’t we?” He seemed intrigued by this answer, and while he still had some doubt, and a feeling that an autobiography should focus primarily on the author, he agreed that at the age of 86, he was who he was because of those he’d met. 

This interaction stayed firmly in my mind while I was reading Hillbilly Elegy. Vance’s story, to me, isn’t really his own. It is the story of his mother, battling emotional turmoil, substance abuse, and a string of failed relationships. It is the story of his sister, who finds herself responsible for their family at a tender age, and how she adapted to these new found pressures and thrived. Mainly, it is a story of his grandparent’s love, his Mamaw and Papaw, and how that was ultimately responsible for his upward mobility, and pursuit of the American Dream.

Hillbilly Elegy is a story of extremes. Extreme poverty, extreme substance abuse, extreme violence. References abound to “mountain dew mouth,” used to refer to children who lose all their teeth thanks to a steady diet of sugary drinks. Tales are told about legendary feuds between families, and their often grisly ends which sometimes feature power tools and body parts. To Vance’s credit, he tells these stories in the casual way that they would be told amongst peers. They are told not to shock, but to shed light on a culture that normalises behaviour such as this.

As mentioned, I found myself identifying deeply with Vance, a man who sits about as starkly opposite on the political spectrum to me as possible. When he tells of not realising his home town was “on the decline” until it was too late, I thought of my own home town, and how the previously bustling high street was now nothing but charity shops, estate agents, empty store fronts and a place you wouldn’t want to be at night. How the shopping mall that held such fond childhood memories for me, of visiting Father Christmas in his grotto every year, of spending my pocket money on toys at the local supermarket, now stood largely empty despite multiple attempts to rejuvenate its image. Whilst my upbringing was sheltered, and comfortable, and I never experienced the levels of hardship mentioned in the book, I was always intrinsically aware that this was due to a Herculean effort by my family, and those around me. Others in my area were not so lucky, and it is only the benefit of hindsight and education that have opened my eyes to the struggle that people from my area face daily.

Vance gives important insight into the working-class attitudes that fed into events like Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump. While he never explicitly mentions either of these events, or claims to have all the answers, he offers first hand experience of resentment of the “other” that can lead to political reactions. He tells tales of his first paycheck, and his anger at tax deductions that he felt furnished extravagant lifestyles of others. This difference between “working-poor” and “non-working-poor” I think is important, and for a British audience, is probably best reflected in the attitude that “you can tell which houses are paid for by the council, it’s the ones with the biggest TVs.” The influence of the New Right sociologist Charles Murray on Vance’s beliefs is evident, and indeed is referenced several times.

Whilst I may disagree wholeheartedly with Vance, and I would argue until I’m blue in the face that I’d rather see my taxes help someone poor afford something nice rather than enable cuts for the rich, it’s impossible to argue that he’s wrong, because he’s always cautious to avoid offering an outright opinion, instead just observing the phenomenon as is. With that, he’s fully right, and I’m certain I’m not alone in knowing working-class people who have a natural mistrust of those they consider even more working class. Indeed, I was reminded of an experience I’d had one day when working with a local council’s planning team. They had received a series of objections from residents of one of the most deprived areas, as there had been a request to turn one of the houses there into two apartments. The residents, whose rent was paid almost fully by local government, objected fiercely to this, and many of them cited ideas that council funded apartments somehow attracted a lower quality of people than council funded housing.

A key theme for Vance is self-reliance. An attitude learned from his time in the Marines, he feels that many of the problems of the poor can be traced to “irrational behaviour.” “We spend our way into the poorhouse.” He says. “We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy, often leaving them full of garbage in our wake. (…). We spend to pretend we’re upper-class.” (Vance, 2016:146)

Vance’s partisanship often leads him to speculate that this is some kind of moral failure, but personally, I see it more of a systemic failure. I have a firm belief that a capitalist system puts a pressure on those at the bottom to live like those at the top, and credit systems such as the payday loans Vance dedicates so much time to enable this lifestyle at a hidden cost of instability and debt slavery. It’s this belief that led me to disagree with Vance, and feel uncomfortable at times when reading Hillbilly Elegy, as I have definitely experienced the anger he talks about, a feeling of being held back by a system that enables the nameless, faceless “elite” to succeed at my cost. This book forced me to face those feelings, and I will admit that perhaps it moderated my views somewhat. I’m definitely still no centrist, but I can agree with Vance on the need for a “thumb on the scale” in favour of the poor, one where government creates opportunities for us, but it is on us to seize them.

Overall, the book is a highly personal, and highly readable story. The cast of characters that Vance collects and presents are three-dimensional in only the way that real people can be, and the story of the ever-fierce, gun-toting Mamaw being humbled and hobbled by old age and loss resonated with me emotionally very strongly. The book is also socially relevant outside of the realm of the political. Vance pulls no punches in his stories of his mother’s battle with opiate addiction, a crisis gripping America, leading President Trump to declare a state of emergency, and the subject of a new Louis Theroux documentary. While my inner liberal flinches at this discussion, with my fear of this being another Reagan-esque “war on drugs,” it’s hard to ignore the harsh realities of addiction, the emotional toll for addicts and those around them, when it’s presented so honestly, openly, and brutally.

That, to me, is where Hillbilly Elegy succeeds most as a book. It is unforgiving in its presentation of life for the working-class. Vance tells a story of his time in college, and his anger at someone who spoke disparagingly about the military without ever having served. It is clear that that sentiment remains with Vance, and that this book is his attempt at pulling back a curtain. It has an academic grounding, certainly, but it is a truly personal story, and one that confronts the reader that will either be all too familiar, or starkly alien, depending on their own background. For that reason, I think it should be considered required reading for anyone who wants to work in public policy or politics, or even for those who perhaps aren’t sure what to make of their own situations and surroundings, and would find solace in knowing that there are others who share similar, if not significantly worse, hardships.

Thanks for reading! My book for this week is Star Wars: Aftermath, by Chuck Wendig. It’s a novel that looks at the events immediately following Return of the Jedi, and is available here. Please leave any feedback or recommedations in a comment below, and get involved in my challenge to read one book a week for 52 weeks if you’d like!

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