Hillbilly Elegy: A memoir of a family and culture in crisis (J.D. Vance)
Non-fiction authors who write about what it is like when your resources and life prospects are limited are, by and large, no more likely to have experienced real hardship than their educated readers have lined up at soup kitchens. George Orwell may have been Down and Out in Paris and London, but as an Old Etonian with some family members still around he could easily have fallen back on more comfortable lifestyle options if he had chosen to do so. Even so, his fieldwork yields vivid insights into the lives of the low-paid and have-nots of his era.
A couple of admirable contemporary books which have recently drawn me into the lives of the less fortunate touch on crime-plagued areas of Mexico and the struggles of evicted retirees in Shanghai. But both follow the usual template of the writer as outsider – the journalist playing amateur anthropologist.
J.D. Vance belongs to a very different category. He has family who are still stuck in the rut of poverty and wasted lives – he spent his youth in that tough environment. His book Hillbilly Elegy, recommended by Bill Gates (I’m going to check out the rest of his reading list), is an analysis of working class life written by someone who has lived that life. It’s a rare gem.
At heart it is a memoir of growing up as rural working class in both the Appalachian part of Kentucky and Middletown in Ohio (which developed a sort of Kentucky hillbilly community, as streams of workers moved north in search of better employment). Vance’s upbringing, and the luck (and hard work) that allowed him to break free of the cycle of underachievement, gives him the perspective to take a considered look at what is wrong, and why, in his hillbilly culture.
His is not an analysis packed with possible solutions to the malaise. But neither does he resign himself to the impossibility of improving the prospects of the next generation of hillbillies. On the whole his book reads as an undogmatic, balanced survey of the situation, informed by three sources: his own childhood memories, his own escape from his chaotic family to the utterly different planet that is Yale Law School, and recent academic studies into the condition of ‘his’ people.
You have to admire his honesty. It can’t have been easy for him to write about what is wrong with the norms and mores of a group that includes many people he loves dearly. A consistent concern in his investigation into why social mobility is virtually at a standstill is that the hillbillies have no expectations of improving their lives. Their own mindset limits them. It’s easy for them to blame governments or society and assume they themselves are powerless to bring about any change to their own condition. The blame trend, Vance suggests at one point, is ‘gaining adherents by the day’.
Perhaps this deep-rooted scepticism about politicians, the press and a host of other external forces is what some of the admiring critics are thinking of when they claim, as in the quote from The Independent on the front of my copy, that this book gives insights into Trump and even Brexit. The idea that this book is a portrait of Trump era America is misleading, though, as it was written before Trump was a serious presidential candidate.
I enjoy books like this that challenge certain common liberal assumptions. For instance, pay-day lenders and loan sharks are a bad thing, aren’t they? Not so, says Vance. They enabled him to get his hands on cash. Sometimes you need to pay for things upfront, and if banks won’t lend you money then these less reputable enterprises do at least give you another lifeline, so long as you’re disciplined enough the pay back the loan quickly.
He also takes issue with the assertion that economic regeneration cures all. It is tempting to side with commentators who say that giving working class people access to jobs will solve the social problems of teenage parenthood, divorce, domestic violence and substance abuse. But the sad reality is that too often, the young person simply doesn’t particularly want a job, or doesn’t want to exert himself much even when he has been given a foot in the door by a generous employer.
If there is a chink of light, albeit narrow, then perhaps it lies in hillbilly self-help. You can blame your environment all you like, but at some point you have to get up and take responsibility for your own actions: give up the drugs, lay off the drink, spend your money wisely, improve your education.