I am decidedly undecided about J.D. Vance's memoir Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.
On the one hand, it's straightforward, an easy read, and it was tough to put down. What is it about trainwrecks, either culturally or personally, that we can't look away from them? Because Vance describes a childhood that was surrounded by trainwrecks: a mother with substance abuse problems and a willingness to bring any sort of boyfriend or new husband into her house with her children; "hillbilly" grandparents who could be downright scary in their willingness to exact their own brutal vengeance on people they viewed as enemies; a school and culture and economic surroundings that largely did not encourage anyone to try or succeed (why bother, if no jobs were waiting for them at the end of their educations?). So this is a stark, personal, succinct (257 pages) read. Here's how Vance starts, in the introduction:
"I was one of those kids with a grim future. I almost failed out of high school. I nearly gave in to the deep anger and resentment harbored by everyone around me. Today people look at me, at my job and my Ivy League credentials, and assume that I'm some sort of genius, that only a truly extraordinary person could have made it to where I am today. With all due respect to those people, I think that theory is a load of bullshit. Whatever talents I have, I almost squandered until a handful of loving people rescued me." (p. 2)
It is emphatically a memoir; Vance admits early on that it is not an academic or sociological study. And that's fine. As a memoir I think the book worked. So why am I not more enthusiastic?
I don't know why, really. Vance's story is an inspiring one (man from impoverished childhood eventually graduates from Ivy League law school and marries one of his fellow students), but perhaps that's the problem. I'm really not much of a reader for inspiration. And there's something about his tone that just bugs me. You can tell by reading this book that he is no real fan of government programs or social justice laws.* He says a lot of things like this about his hometown of Jackson:
"The truth is hard, and the hardest truths for hill people are the ones they must tell about themselves. Jackson is undoubtedly full of the nicest people in the world; it is also full of drug addicts and at least one man who can find the time to make eight children but can't find the time to support them. It is unquestionably beautiful, but its beauty is obscured by the environmental waste and loose trash that scatters the countryside. Its people are hardworking, except of course for the many food stamp recipients who show little interest in honest work. Jackson, like the Blanton men, is full of contradictions." (p. 21.)
Okay. I know that government programs are not the whole answer. I know that lots of people don't want to work long hours or at physically demanding jobs. But Vance's tone sounds a little too much like "okay, people, pull yourself up by your bootstraps" for me. Just once in this country I'd like to see this argument NOT phrased as either/or: how about we expect people to try a little harder, but still try and implement common-sense government or social or charitable programs that would provide the most help where it is the most needed? Particularly since Vance making this argument seems a bit distasteful, as it does seem that he relied on his grandmother and some other family members for his work ethic and some help. Does he just want to write off everyone who had a troublesome mother, like his own, but who maybe wasn't lucky enough to have a kind and hard-working grandmother? That begins to smack of George W. Bush disease: Born on Third Base, Think You Hit a Triple.**
*At one point he rails against legislation to try and cut down on payday lenders and their over-the-top interest rates, arguing that for people in poverty sometimes just a little bit of cash can get you through or past big problems. I understand that. I have an appreciation for how a couple of hundred bucks can sometimes make all the difference. But I think what he's missing is that maybe the payday lenders don't have to make a gazillion dollars off someone else's short-term financial need. Again: what about some moderation?
**Although of course George W. Bush was born into a family with a gazillion more dollars than Vance's family had. Still, you get my point.