When something truly incredible happens, everyone suddenly becomes an expert on why it happens. A lot of it is just charlatanry. One is told that Hillbilly Elegy is the Rosetta stone to understanding why and how trump won the last election. But I am sure there are at least a dozen other books to which people will give that same claim. And frankly, I don’t think any of them likely do.
Hillbilly Elegy is JD Vance’s memoir of growing up Appalachian Scots-Irish in America’s rust belt, and it recounts the trauma of his broken family and how, in his opinion, he almost did not escape from it. It chronicles his childhood through to his early adulthood, wherein he goes from the rust belt to the east coast elite, not without some trials and tribulations. He ultimately sees his life as being very successful compared to those people he left behind, which is certainly the case.
Vance clearly does not think much of his upbringing, and his book wants to pin the blame on something. The problem is that he seems to not know exactly what to pin the blame on, and therefore doesn’t. It falls short of ever solidly pinning the blame on anything concrete. He seems to want to blame Appalachian Hillbilly culture, but at the same time credits his own escape to the positive influence of his grandmother and grandfather – the only two real hillbillies of the narrative. Nor does his condemnation of ‘honor’ culture seem very complete. It is touched upon, but frankly I think I could have said much more on the subject were I writing this book.
Instead, Vance gives us a rambling narrative that pushes us through his troubled childhood and into his successful adulthood. The book began to be a lot less interesting there, as the book adopts a ‘fish out of water’ theme that has little to do with origins as a hillbilly.
But the truth of the matter is that frankly you cannot rely on a memoir to analyze the problem. Sure, he knows all the factors of his own life, but it can never look closely enough at the details of any others. He seems to write off everything that happens to his community at large as a lack of personal responsibility. Sure, maybe. But this isn’t sociology, this isn’t an understanding of what has happened in the past year. It’s not the political panacea for 2018. It’s just the book of one person’s life and it’s a life that by their own admission isn’t typical.