Review of ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ by J.D. Vance

As usual, I’m a couple of years behind in getting to this book, which some people seem to view as some sort of cultural touchstone.  To the degree that it portrays a family living in a kind of cultural backwater – both geographically and symbolically – Hillbilly Elegy is interesting enough. Vance’s description of his family circumstances does indeed invoke a family in deeply troubled circumstances – a mother with serious psychological, relationship and substance issues, grandparents/surrogate parents with financial problems as well as alcohol-induced issues, a child’s tenuous personal relationships with anyone outside his immediate family, a life in poverty.

But troubling for me was the book’s dry recounting of these circumstances in a style that elicited a certain degree of pity, but almost no personal connection with anyone, including Vance, the narrator. To be sure, there is a case to be made that the rural poor – a group Vance collectively folds into the description of “working class” – are living in trying economic times.  But, of course, considering that Vance is now well into his 30s and this story describes his circumstances since childhood, there is nothing particularly new or timely about that.  The family hardships he recounts were just as valid when he was born in the heart of the Ronald Reagan era as they are today.  So, while I’m glad I read “Hillbilly Elegy” and it certainly gave me much to think about regarding cultural differences, I thought that it suffers from significant sociopolitical and literary problems.

On the literary side, it is simply bland and dry.  Two-thirds of the way into the book Vance describes himself as returning to his Christian roots without ever previously having mentioned going to church. Near the end of the book, he describes his struggles with his temper and self-control, having only barely mentioned such concerns throughout his teens, his military service, his undergraduate or graduate years.  In writer’s terms, the book is overwhelmed by “telling” and offers very little “showing.”  That does not diminish its value, but it does diminish its power and its ability to connect.  In its scope and theme, “Hillbilly Elegy” is reminiscent of “Angela’s Ashes” by Frank McCourt, but it is not nearly so moving, descriptive or, frankly, thought-provoking.  Even Barack Obama’s “Audacity of Hope,” is a much more vivid look at the difficulties of emerging from broken, non-traditional family.

On the sociopolitical side, I found the book wanting in a similar lack of depth. Somewhere past the middle of the book, we learn that Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels is Vance’s political hero, and Vance describes himself several times as conservative.  Yet, as with his Christianity, he never discusses how the social circumstances in which he was raised – circumstances which must have played a pivotal role in the formation of his social and political values – led him in the direction he followed. In his conclusion, he makes the – reasonable enough – generalizations that people have to think beyond blaming “Obama and Bush” for their problems, and he says later that “government can help” but ultimately, it’s up to the “hillbillys” of his youth themselves to solve their problems with acculturalization.  The first statement strikes me as an attempt to distance politics from the equation. The second is incongruous and short-sighted.  Just what are the hillbillys of Kentucky and their ex-pat family and friends in Middletown, Ohio, and beyond supposed to do to help themselves that he has shown in any way elsewhere in the book? Considering the sizeable amount of government help he does acknowledge the he and members of his family relied on, imagine what would happen if it hadn’t been available.  On what resources, then, would there be any hope for the folks he describes.  In short, as he looks at the people around him who emerged with some degree of stability from the highly unstable environment in which he was raised, his conclusion almost seems to be that one’s only hope is luck. Luck in genes that may bring the fortitude or intelligence to look for something better. Luck in running across someone who will provide a lifeline to a better world. Luck in circumstances or opportunities that appear at propitious times.

Expectations figure unavoidably into our assessments of any experience, so I have to acknowledge that some of my concerns about “Hillbilly Elegy” may be simply reactions to the fact that it was not the poetic and transformative description of a certain life experience that I expected.  For that, I’ll still defer to McCourt’s work.  It was an informative book, and it gives a portrayal of a certain type of life experience that deserves attention and consideration.  I can appreciate it for that quality; I would caution other readers not to expect more than that.