Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, January 2, 2017

J. D. Vance, _Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis_

BOOKS BY CONTRIBUTORS to National Review are decidedly not among my usual ports of call, but I picked this up as part of my campaign to read my way into understanding how Trump happened.

First of all, I have to say that Vance is an excellent writer.  Wish he was on our side, actually. Recalling that such excellent writers as Garry Wills, Joan Didion, and John Leonard also started out at the National Review, I found myself hoping that Vance, too, might find himself drifting leftward as the years go by. (The rest of them they can keep.)

Vance's book is about growing up in a family of low-to-modest means that has relocated from Kentucky to southern Ohio. His mother has a lot of problems--substance abuse, poor anger management, catastrophically bad boyfriend/husband relationships--and his father is long gone, so Vance's most sustaining relationships are with his older sister and with Mamaw, his grandmother, who gets him through high school with a blend of unconditional love and zero tolerance for backtalk or laziness. He joins the Marines, where he has to grow up fast (including time in Iraq), and on completing his service blitzes through Ohio State and gets into Yale Law School. Right now, he's doing way better than all right, but he emphasizes that he was one of the lucky ones.

The book's other main theme, as the subtitle indicates, is that his milieu, the white working class of    (roughly) the upper South, Appalachia, and the Rust Belt--that is, the people who put Trump in the White House--is generally in the same kind of trouble he was as a child and a teenager, struggling with opioids and meth, family dysfunction, educational failures, economic instability, It was principally for insight into this milieu that I picked up the book, and it has plenty.

Two things stuck out for me.

First: mistrust of national institutions such as the government, the schools, and the media. The people among whom Vance grew up, his family and his neighbors, do not feel that these national institutions understand them, are interested in them, or even see them, save intermittently (election years) and even then only condescendingly. This aligns well with Thomas Frank's thesis in Listen, Liberal, it seems to me, but even the way-right Charles Murray (Coming Apart) has lately felt free to diss this swathe of the population, and got congratulated for doing so by David Brooks.

Vance himself clearly feels that his culture needs to straighten up, but when he writes about how it feels to belong to a culture that is routinely undervalued and dismissed, he smolders with a bit of the cold fire of James Baldwin.

(I don't understand why these folks feel Trump does get them, does see them, but maybe just by virtue of not scolding them or sneering at them he seems different.)

Second: a suspicion that even while they are being told to fend for themselves, plenty of people no worse off than they are getting lots of free stuff. This comes up when the teenaged Vance, working as a checkout person in a supermarket, notices that people are using food stamps to buy pop, which they then sell on the street at a discount for cash, which cash they use to buy beer and cigarettes. "I could never understand," Vance writes, "why our lives felt like a struggle while those living off of of government largesse enjoyed trinkets that I only dreamed about."

I live in Nebraska, not Ohio or Appalachia, but I hear some variation of that complaint frequently, usually about immigrants, whom some of my fellow citizens are absolutely convinced are getting an array of freebies at taxpayer expense. Those same fellow citizens voted overwhelmingly  for Trump, and they expect he will be shutting down that gravy train, pronto.

An illuminating book.

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