Wednesday, June 28, 2017
 
Book Review: In “Hillbilly Elegy,” Fascination With a Young Man’s Background

(DPI Book Review) Dec. 7, 2016 – There is a good person somewhere in the Yale Law School admissions office. That person exercised his or her institutional power – quiet power about as random as a Tinder swipe – and changed J.D. Vance’s life.

Hillbilly Elegy

You see, Vance is not the kind of guy who usually reaches the cozy confines of an elite law school.  He grew up in southwestern Ohio, of Scotch-Irish, Kentucky-Appalachia stock, in what we’d all agree was a “screwed-up family” with a drug-addled mother and a distant father. For a kid, “dysfunctional” doesn’t quite capture the challenges he faced.

But Vance survived, and after high school he joined the Marines, served a tour in Iraq, was later a top undergraduate at Ohio State – and then applied, rather ambitiously, to a top-tier law school.  He credits all his progress to one person: His maternal grandmother, the strongest, steadiest influence in his life.

Still, none of this sounds wildly unusual, at least not among my generation – some people, despite their obstacles and long odds, do manage to win a ticket into the best schools where the promising become the credentialed and well-connected.  Bill Clinton comes to mind, as does of course Barack Obama. That’s what open-minded admissions officers are for, right?

It was one of Vance’s law school professors, the celebrity scholar-author Amy Chua (yes, she’s the “Tiger Mom”) , who encouraged Vance to write a book about growing up in tough circumstances in the American Rust Belt.

Thus HarperCollins has published “Hillbilly Elegy,” a 257-page message to everyone – but, let’s face it, mostly to liberal elites – that there are white folks out there who are suffering too, riven by the loss of decent jobs and the opioid epidemic.  And many of those suffering folks, by the way, live in Rust Belt swing states.

As it turns out – and publishers always shoot for this – Vance’s book is well timed: NPR and The New York Times have decided in recent months, even before the election, that “Hillbilly Elegy” explains the rise of Donald Trump.  Urban intellectuals have rushed to Amazon to buy this book so they can understand these American Yanomami, this alien tribe of small-town and rural white people. It’s now 18 weeks on the NYT best seller list.

Vance writes unsparingly of the years of his youth, as he shuttles from one family member’s house to another, as he watches relatives regularly uphold their honor with fistfights, and as he must lie to a judge to keep his mother out of jail.  Then there’s the neighborhood, the drug use and general idleness, with people in town blaming others for their circumstance, and many more deciding that work is for suckers anyway.

For much of the book, readers will evaluate how much of these people’s misfortune is ingrained – just another generation of poor folks doing stupid things – and how much of it is a recent, more dramatic development with deeper implications.

But Vance argues, rather convincingly, that his grandparents possessed a moral character and fortitude that younger people simply don’t have today.  To some degree that’s a timeless lament, but watching all the recent whining and coddling going on on college campuses, including Yale’s, I’d say his point has more validity these days.

The social divide is a big part of this book: Vance identifies parochialism and narrow-mindedness not simply in down-on-its-luck Middletown, Ohio, but also in cloistered New Haven, where his peers have never met an Iraq war veteran.

Still, “Hillbilly Elegy” feels a bit propped up – the themes that the editors at HarperCollins have tried to limn from Vance’s life experience don’t quite convince me that Donald Trump won because Vance’s tribe has been left behind.  There just aren’t enough of Vance’s tribe to do that. Hillary Clinton lost for a lot of other, bigger reasons.

At times I just felt like “Hillbilly Elegy” is a book manufactured, a tad condescendingly, after a few phone calls from a Yale faculty member to a HarperCollins senior editor – “Hey, old pal, I’ve got this weird kid in my constitutional law class” – and they decided Vance’s story needed telling, and especially to their “progressive” peers.

The irony of course is that “Hillbilly Elegy”  reveals Vance as a firm skeptic of the social policies many of his readers likely hold dear – longtime welfare, he suggests, undermines people’s work ethic and sense of self reliance, and some people on food stamps engage in a fair amount of fraud, he discovered in his grocery store job. No great revelations there.

There were some head-scratcher moments for me too: Vance (or his editors) cite surveys declaring that people who attend church and are generally more religious tend to lead cleaner lives, free of addiction and vice.  Anyone surprised by any of that is more out-of-touch than any “hillbilly.”

Moreover, it seems that Vance isn’t exactly overwhelmed by Yale Law, which places much value on its “social capital” – what we used to call social connections – as well as the value of your charm, grooming and general coolness for landing a job.

Almost unintentionally, the most conspicuous winner in “Hillbilly Elegy” is The United States Marine Corps – it is in that institution where Vance really finds his footing. His decision to enlist – rather than go straight to college, because he felt he wasn’t ready – was probably the best of his early life.  As much as Yale Law sounds a little overrated these days, the USMC remains decidedly underrated as an academy for building character, or at least preparing them for the real world.

I’m not sure why but I have a problem with the word “hillbilly”- it’s somehow an acceptable term for “white trash”, and reading this book I never for a second considered labeling J.D. Vance either of those things.  He’s a bright guy, and now in his early 30s he’s married to his law school sweetheart and working in Silicon Valley.  Like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, I don’t think we’ve heard the last of him.

–Stephen E. Clark

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