The most telling thing about this book is its reception. The fact that J.D. Vance is now hailed as America’s “class whisperer” and is a paid contributor to CNN speaks volumes about how class is virtually absent from American political discourse. Only in a political vacuum such as this could a book as superficial as Hillbilly Elegy succeed.
The book does have some redeeming features however, enough to enjoy it as a narrative. Vance is a clear writer and displays a refreshing level of self-awareness. Interestingly, that self-awareness is conspicuously absent until the final three chapters. If I was being charitable, I would say that Vance made a conscious effort to embody his younger self in the book’s early pages. More likely is that Vance developed greater self-understanding and empathy throughout the process of writing.
I say more likely because the book does often read like it is Vance’s substitution for psychological therapy. Even the most critical reader is made to feel empathetic regarding his undeniably traumatic childhood. If anything, the book is a revealing case-study of early childhood trauma’s life-long effects. The role of family in determining one’s life trajectory is a central focus of the book.
Ostensibly, Vance claims to love and value his family – repeatedly stressing that despite their obvious flaws, Hillbillies are good, loyal people at heart. Forgive me for not being convinced. If loyalty is a key Hillbilly virtue, then Vance abandons it entirely by writing this book. Intimate details about his family, including his mother’s battle with opioid addiction, are cast out into the open. Hillbilly Elegy feels like the literary equivalent of storming out after a heated domestic argument; by writing it, Vance hopes to have the last word and finally gain the upper-hand in his lifelong battle with his mother.
To put it crudely, Vance ascends the class ladder only to use his newfound literary skills to shit on those left behind. No wonder Vance identifies today as a conservative Republican. There are those who think that improving the lives of the working-class means eradicating them entirely. If you want to improve your lot in life, study harder and go to university. But what about those who *want* to work manual labour jobs? Do they not also deserve a dignified standard of living? Hillbilly Elegy is silent on these questions.
If one can treat Hillbilly Elegy as purely narrative, then I would recommend it. Unfortunately, Vance makes treating it as such incredibly difficult by repeatedly engaging in amateur sociology. Two particularly egregious examples stand out.
First, Vance writes about working at the local grocery store as a cashier during high school. He observes his fellow Hillbillies trade in their food stamps for soda, which they subsequently sell and use the profit to purchase alcohol. Vance quickly becomes indignant that his hard-earned tax dollars are going towards such people who are obviously “gaming” the system. Vance concludes that Democratic policies “weren’t all they were cracked up to be”.
Second, during his time working for an Ohio state Senator, Vance recalls a piece of legislation designed to curb the activities of pay-day lenders. Vance opposed such legislation because he himself was able to use pay-day lending services responsibly. Those who fall into predatory cycles of debt clearly just need a few lessons on responsible budgeting.
It is rumoured that Vance may one day seek public office. These two examples alone should disqualify him. Not because of their content, that’s a seperate debate, but because of the anecdotal and solipsistic way Vance arrives at his conclusions. Public policy should be determined by data, not emotional reactions to personal experiences.
Hillbilly Elegy is personal reflection masquerading as cultural analysis. Treating it as anything other than an subjective account is dangerous and short-sighted.