Saturday, October 29, 2016

Living in Hell: J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and the White Working Class

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.

Vance writes in simple, direct language, which helps to keep his experiences in the foreground. He’s clearly more interested in conveying what he’s learned than scoring any stylistic points. It also helps him achieve a balanced tone, which in turn helps to give a more fully-rounded portrait of his life and the environment in which he grew up. The book might easily have become a sort of “misery porn,” dwelling on the horrors of living in a world rife with substance abuse, violence, and the neglect of children, among other evils. Instead, it’s often just as telling in its comic moments, as in a later episode where Vance, now a student at Yale Law School, finds himself at a high-stakes job interview/dinner where he’s utterly at a loss as to how he ought to use the bewildering array of silverware he finds at his table setting.

Vance’s trajectory, which took him from near-dropout in high school to the Marine Corps, and then subsequently to a prestigious law school, is clearly unusual. The book occasionally loses its way in the later chapters, bogging down in some of the details of his legal studies; the shock of returning our focus to his mother, who has declined into homelessness, feels abrupt, and it sits uneasily with his descriptions of the finer points of life among the privileged and wealthy. Still, he ultimately manages to bring these chapters of life to bear on his hillbilly origins, pointing out how his experiences with the discipline of the military or the network of contacts that he encountered at Yale demonstrate how utterly unprepared most of his peers from Middletown were to achieve the sort of success that guarantees economic stability.

The political implications of Vance’s memoir are clear in the turbulent election season of 2016. The book occasionally feels like a trial balloon for a political career: he goes out of his way to praise politicians like former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, and at one point he tosses in a defense of an Ohio state legislator’s support for payday lenders. It’s a personal matter, based on his own experience of using these lenders to tide him over during financially trying times (as well his personal admiration for the legislator, who was his boss at the time), but it’s odd to see him defending an often rapacious industry on the basis of a personal anecdote, when elsewhere in the book he’s willing to blame welfare in broad terms for contributing to the plight of his former neighbors. However, overall Vance is fairly clear-eyed about how the struggles faced by his fellow members of the white working class contribute to their political leanings. Donald Trump never rates a mention in the book, which was written before his emergence on the political scene, but it’s not hard to draw a line from the hopelessness that pervades the lives of many of his fellow hillbillies to the simplistic solutions peddled by those who hope to gain their vote.

– Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for HowlRound and WBUR's Cognoscentipage. He also tweets about theatre history at@theaterhistory.

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