Hey, a lot of people seem anxious to get a read on this Trump phenomenon — some literally.
And into that anxiety strides one J.D. Vance, 30-something Marine veteran, Silicon Valley attorney and Yale Law School grad, who might seem an odd candidate for his first book to become the season's hottest political read. Yet there's Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis atop the must-read list. I even ran into a neighbor at Nonesuch Books buying a copy for her reading group. She finished it by the next week and asked me about the profanity — do they really talk like that? To kids?
Such questions have come my way of late because I am myself an Appalachian-American from the very part of Kentucky fueling Elegy. Some level of verification is helpful, because Vance is widely criticized back home for not being nearly hillbilly enough. It turns out the Vance family left the hills a generation before the author was born, headed for those good industrial jobs up in Ohio. So his book is roughly like somebody raised in one of the better Boston suburbs suddenly writing about how those folks in The County got that way, and he knows because his grandparents lived there. Trust me, hillbillies have the same tolerance for critics "from away" (our term is "from off") as Mainers.
To that point, it's culturally helpful to note that the term "hillbilly" remains one of the few derogatory nouns still routinely available to non-members of the group being disparaged. It's at least somewhat akin to the African-American internalization of the foulest of their monikers (and just forget what the sexual identity warriors of the 1980s did to reverse their triggers — it's a long list).
Not that geo-cred matters at this point. The national media has already adopted him with a ton of coverage, including a Brian Williams interview, a New York Times piece (natch) on one of the Clinton-Trump debates, and even a TED Talk on how we've forgotten the working class. They've called him a "redneck whisperer" and the Hillbilly Guru.
So, for the record: Hillbilly Elegy carried the shock of recognition in virtually every chapter.
Look, back home is so different that a columnist at one of the state's top newspapers, wrote, unquestioned: "Time was when nobody wanted to be known as a hillbilly. Nowadays, everybody wants to be one, except those out on the roads who are victims of hillbilly profiling and who get pulled over by the police simply because their old truck has a coal-miner-peeing-on-the-
president decal in the back window. That is probable cause for something, and gets the hillbilly hauled into court and relieved of several hundred dollars in fines and costs to fund the edifice complex which got us all those new courthouses, and leads to the hillbilly having to shoplift groceries."
Spoiler alert: Vance is privilege-check challenged.
In fact, he pretty much leads off with "... in our race-conscious society, our vocabulary often extends no further than the color of someone's skin — 'black people,' 'Asians,' 'white privilege.' Sometimes these broad categories are useful, but to understand my story, you have to delve into the details. I may be white, but I do not identify with the WASPs of the Northeast. Instead, I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree. To these folks, poverty is the family tradition — their ancestors were day laborers in the Southern slave economy, share-croppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and mill workers during more recent times. Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family."
But wait. Reading that previous quote, I fear the impression that Mr. Vance, with his fancy use of Oxford comma and gift for on-the-nose rhetoric, might be a slow read. Far from it — his horrid tale of come-and-go father figures, profane grandparents, beatings, tragic drug abuse and general horror is the stuff of nightmares. I know because I have some of those nightmares.
Vance talks about feeling like a persecuted minority in Ohio, and I remember being chased down a Columbus street, trying to bolt from semi-protected playground to obscurity before Those Guys saw me, and being caught and slapped around a bit, with the usual taunts and the staple: "Three R's for hillbillies? Reading, writing and Route 23!" (The route into central Ohio).
Like him, we were cautioned not to "get above his raising."
Vance notes that as a child he felt "... boys who got good grades were 'sissies' or 'faggots.' I don't know where I got this feeling ... studies now show that working-class boys like me do much worse in school because they view schoolwork as a feminine endeavor." That admission reminds me of sometimes asking my sisters to carry my textbooks home lest I'd be caught studying — the standard bully move was that such a boy was "queer" and/or the apparent multi-state catch-all "faggot." (When one of those very bullies — many years later, of course, and in a galaxy far, far away — introduced me to his new husband, well, it was the kind of tipping-point insight you just can't get any other way.)
And when Vance talks about his patient, not-from-the-hills wife reminding him that not every perceived slight "is cause for a blood feud," I did smile a bit. My Mainer wife does the same while being kind enough to remind me that the Appalachians don't exactly end in West Virginia — something worth remembering in a state that sent 25 percent of its electoral votes to Mr. Trump.
Basically, Vance credits his success to the U.S. Marine Corps, some luck with mentors and a family that, despite enough dysfunctions to make the Kardashians cringe, offered more or less unconditional love. This is a bit modest because his clear work ethic and what seems to be a reliable self-evaluation gene serve him well.
In his role as the Neil deGrasse Tyson of Rouge Nape America, Vance clearly leans center-right, having worked for a Republican congressman and generally embracing Kentucky's odd political identity; for example, the Bluegrass State's Rand Paul just became the only Republican to vote against repealing Obamacare. To the point of the Trump election, Vance — who did not support the president-elect — has explained in interviews that hillbillies “... view Hillary Clinton as the representative of a cultural tribe that is alien and hostile and judgmental of nearly everything about their way of life. … That feeling of cultural alienation is very real. … There is a certain amount of cultural condescension that comes from the elites to the rest of the country.”
Back home we'd say "nobody likes getting talked down to."
Hillbilly Elegy makes that point in a very human way. It offers a starkly different and more personal take than the 2004 "it" book, Thomas Frank's What's The Matter With Kansas?, which also involved somebody addressing Appalachian culture to address their point. Speaking of other such books, it would be hillbilly malpractice not to mention the cult-following classic Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches From America's Class War by Joe Bageant. And while we're at it, don't forget Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America for lessons in frustration.
Look, it's no secret that Trump supporters are madder than hell and aren't going to take it anymore. To be sure, Elegy is only one piece to understanding that anger, even if fitting the pieces together can feel less like a jigsaw endeavor and more like the agony of that guy with the leg lamp in A Christmas Story.
It could be that J.D. Vance's real accomplishment might be offering just a bit of glue.