|Author J.D. Vance. (Photo: Naomi McColloch)|
It’s hard to say which is the most arresting anecdote in J.D. Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. There’s the story about the time his beloved grandmother – “Mamaw” to Vance and his sister – nearly blew off an interloper’s head in backwoods Kentucky during her girlhood. There’s the one that Vance recounts about his opioid-addicted mother nearly swerving off the road while screaming at him, then chasing him and forcing him to take shelter in a neighbor’s house, only to break down the door just before the cops showed up. Then there are the fleeting but haunting images of rural poverty that he witnesses when he returns to “hillbilly” country, such as the eight pairs of eyes, belonging to hungry and neglected children, that he catches staring out at him from a rundown shack.
Vance’s memoir, which recounts his early life as the son of self-described “hillbillies,” isn’t all despair and misery, however. His grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, seem to have fled their small Kentucky community to settle in Middletown because of a teenage pregnancy scandal. Miscarriages, alcoholism, and domestic violence followed, but eventually the couple achieved an unconventional but workable equilibrium, which allowed them to provide a degree of stability to Vance and his sister Lindsay when their mother’s life went off the rails. There’s a fair degree of warmth in the book, as well as recurring moments when he steps back from the narrative of his life to cite experts who have studied the social decay of the white working-class milieu from which he comes. It’s an admirable attempt to provide some perspective and to contextualize his personal experiences. In some ways, it’s eye-opening: hillbilly culture, according to Vance, is indeed violent, but it’s also not quite the reactionary, Bible-thumping stereotype advanced by those who are unfamiliar with his world.