Hillbilly Elegy: Requiem for a Memoir

One of the most talked about books of the last few months is J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. In it, Vance discusses growing up poor in rural Ohio but overcomes all sorts of family and socioeconomic adversity and ultimately graduates from Yale Law School.

Memoirs are usually chronological and full of anecdotes. When was the last time reading a memoir left you satisfied? Vance’s book doesn’t break the mold of the memoir structure. It’s his prose – specifically his candor and clarity – that separates this from the rest.

I can see why there’s so much discussion about this book. A lot of people believe that Donald Trump was elected because he appealed to, for a lack of better word, hillbillies. People looking for an answer about the election will be disappointed. While I do feel the book is essential, I don’t believe it’s essential to understand the 2016 election. A 2016 release date and the topic of rural America are mere coincidences with the election and its outcome.

When reading the book I couldn’t help but think about There Are No Children Here. Written almost 30 years ago, you could easily swap Appalachia with housing projects in Chicago and the narrative is similar: drugs, violence, parental strife, premature parenthood, income segregation, and a stretched thin social services infrastructure. In many ways our country has come a long way, but stories like Vance’s vividly illustrate that we have a long way to go.

While the perils that populate Vance’s family’s life are all difficult topics which occupy many of the pages of Hillbilly Elegy, Vance doesn’t belabor the point; the book is all thriller, no filler. For being in his early thirties, what he has dealt with in his life could have easily have filled a book double in volume. Vance doesn’t let stories don’t overstay their welcome. He deftly avoids nostalgia and other memoir tropes and keeps the reader invigorated.

In the last few chapters, Vance moves out of Middletown, Ohio to attend Ohio State and then Yale. It’s here where we start to see a mature, adult Vance emerge and his writing adjusts accordingly. He pivots from seeing the world from a child’s perspective and starts effortlessly intertwining self-reflection.

For example, the first time I read the following sentence, it kicked me in the gut:  “The Great Recession, and the not-great recovery that followed, has hastened Middletown’s downward trajectory. But there was something almost spiritual about the cynicism of the community at large, something that went much deeper than a short-term recession.”

This sentence sets the tone that permeates the last third of the book. Now that he’s moved and returned home, he can see the forest for the trees. He starts realizing the paradoxes of the community he grew up in; the residents of Middletown love their country, but they believe the system (read: Government or any authority) is against them. The aforementioned cynicism makes people think that it’s not their own fault they’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault. Stewing around with that belief “foments detachment.”

Vance’s candid self-awareness really set this book apart from other memoirs.  After reading about his upbringing, which is exotic by most standards, he doesn’t just keep the book going with anecdotes; he graciously lets us into his mind. He doesn’t have answers for everything going on in his world, nor does he try to solve them. While the book was published the election was in full swing, readers wanting answers about the election outcome will be disappointed with this book. Very few politicians are named, and why should they be? This is Vance and his family’s story. His family, and his hillbilly family, have been left behind by politicians for decades. Readers should focus on the narrative and not focus on solutions. By understanding Vance and his family’s story, we can better understand ourselves. And once we have that, I believe we can gain a greater empathy with one another and hopefully that can lead to better discourse that can help eliminate socioeconomic issues in this country.