Hillbilly Elegy

A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

[Amazon Link]

What's an elegy? I had to look it up to be sure: It's "a mournful, melancholy, or plaintive poem, especially a funeral song or a lament for the dead." I believe the author, J. D. Vance, is referring to the culture he grew up in. It's not dead, but he's left it behind.

The book is pretty good. As I type, it's number seven on the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list, and it's been on the list for forty-seven weeks. Many of these sales, I think, have been to parents giving the book to their kiddos: "See, as bad as you think we were, things could have been lots worse. Specifically, your mother will never demand that you provide her with a clean urine sample that she can provide to her employer as if it were hers."

J. D. Vance, the author, tells the story of his life so far, concentrating on the hillbilly family and culture in which he was immersed growing up. It's brutally honest, and makes no excuses for the various dysfunctions. And there are a lot: e.g., drug abuse, as noted above. Family ties are unstable; at last count, I think J. D.'s mom was on husband number five, and those husbands were interspersed with numerous live-in boyfriends. Paradoxically, family loyalty is strong; funerals, weddings, graduations are all well-attended by even distant relations. (J. D. distinguishes between his "nuclear" family, relatively small, and his "extended" family, which due to all the serial marriage is huge, fluid, and difficult to track.) Generosity is rife, even to a fault.

The hillbilly culture is prone to irresponsibility, short-term thinking, and short-fused conflict, both inside and outside family bounds. In the modern world, this makes long-term employment in non-menial jobs a rarity, and financial stability even rarer. (The generosity mentioned above can cause expensive mistakes.) Within families, psychological warfare seems unremitting.

And more. J. D. is observant and insightful at what makes him and his culture tick. His story is one of both escape and acceptance. Thanks to a loving grandmother (who I pictured as Margo Martindale playing a less criminal, but more profane version of Justified's Mags Bennett) who provided good advice without necessarily following it herself. J. D. (eventually) gets decent grades in school, joins the Marines, attends Ohio State, gets into (to his own surprise) Yale Law School, finds his eventual wife, and… wrote this book. Each step of the way is tricky, and things could have easily gone wrong. A cameo appearance is made by Amy Chua, the famous "dragon mom", who was J. D.'s contracts prof at Yale; her mentoring helped hugely.

OK, I said: good for parents to give their kids. But also… you can't help but notice that a lot of the "hillbilly" dysfunctions are working their way into white working-class cultures in general. That's cause for even more concern.