t is the case, as Leo Tolstoy insisted, that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but with Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance would have us understand his story as representative. And perhaps it is, in an unexpected way.
Vance’s memoir really is not, despite its marketing, a tale of economic privation among the Kentucky Scots-Irish exodus. It is closer to the opposite: His Kentucky-exile grandparents are secure and prosperous in spite of their own humble origins and a long period of alcohol-fueled domestic strife; they own a nice, four-bedroom home and drive new high-end cars—convertibles, even. Growing up in a small town in Ohio in the 1990s, Vance lived in a household with an annual income exceeding $100,000, or the equivalent of about $175,000 a year in today’s dollars. He had a close-knit extended family, including a grandmother who read to him and a grandfather who helped him get ahead of the other children in math, which served him well: After college and law school—at Yale—Vance went on to become the principal of a Silicon Valley investment firm. He is 31 years old.
His family was indeed miserable, but theirs wasn’t the misery of poverty and privation. It was the misery of people determined to be miserable at any price. The great American bounty was wheeled out for their enjoyment like room service at the Ritz Carlton, and they decided they preferred Wendy’s and Night Train and OxyContin and desultory sex with strangers from bars.
Nothing happened to them—they happened.
The main difference between Vance and his unhappy forebears with their Byzantine marital histories and “Mountain Dew mouth”—exactly what it sounds like—is that he had the good sense to say yes to the happiness that was offered him.
What’s interesting about his story—his only real excuse for writing a memoir, in fact—is that he almost said no, and that he is one of those unusual men who actually understands the decisions he has made, why and how he made them, and the effects they have had. He also writes well and is, if not quite immune to the sentimental horse manure that plagues the “My Old Kentucky Home” genre, at least sensible enough to be embarrassed about it and limit his indulgence in it.
Some writers of memoirs engage in literary embellishment, but the more common sin is literary oversimplification, reducing the fullness of men and women to chessmen to be moved about the board in whatever way suits the authorial purpose. Vance does not seem to have done this, but the men and women in his life are nonetheless familiar enough as types—queasily familiar, in fact, if you have much experience with the milieu he is documenting. His mother is a nurse, a much-married woman who grows bored with men who are kind and well-employed, who takes up drinking and carousing relatively late in life and engages in theatrical public meltdowns, including purported suicide attempts. His father is a bit player in the drama and relinquishes his legal paternal rights to one of Vance’s subsequent stepfathers, who also is out of the picture soon enough. Vance’s grandmother (and surrogate mother), whom he calls Mamaw, is one of those horrifying redneck women who thinks of herself as a matriarch, threatens to shoot people all the time, and apologizes for being a “crazy bitch” even while she obviously takes pleasure and a sense of personal identity from being one. His grandfather is a working drunk who eventually puts the plug in the jug and lives his life a decent man. There are many uncles and other relations who play larger and smaller roles in the tale.
The economics of Vance’s life are worth noting. As he reports, the chaos of his upbringing—at one point, he’s dividing his time between three different households, and most of the members of his tight clan have different surnames—is real and it is awful, but it has little to do with economic opportunity per se. His family doesn’t live in the poor section of town, and they have money to provide him with all sorts of desirable things, including golf lessons. He gets a nice set of secondhand MacGregors—being a poor hillbilly ain’t what it used to be.
When he needs a decent job to put aside some money to finance his move to New Haven, he finds one working in a floor-tile warehouse for $13 an hour with no trouble. The owners of the facility are desperate for help and cannot fill positions in spite of paying wages that are very high relative to the cost of living in their community, where an apartment goes for a few hundred bucks a month. One of Vance’s fellow workers, a 19-year-old man with a child on the way, is consistently late and takes hours worth of “bathroom” breaks every day, until he is fired. His reaction is a familiar one: “How could you do this to me?” The idea that he is somehow responsible for his own situation, that he is in fact at fault in his firing, is alien to him, unthinkable.
Vance’s mother loses her high-paying nurse’s job in a similar if more dramatic fashion, raiding the hospital pharmacy, getting high as a Georgia pine on prescription painkillers, and then Rollerblading through the emergency room.
The family does not start off poor—it achieves poverty under the expert ministrations of Vance’s mother. She gets herself into a domestic-abuse case—during one of her theatrical fits, she threatens to kill Vance and herself, and then commences beating the terrified child, who bolts from the family car (of course it happens in a car) while on a highway and then runs to the house of a stranger begging for shelter. The homeowner takes him in and calls the police. Of course, Vance’s grandparents do everything they can to protect his mother from the consequences of her actions, including pressuring little J. D. to lie about the episode in court. They also hire very expensive attorneys for her.
That kind of help does not come cheap. Between the legal fees, the rehab facilities, the never-to-be-repaid “loans” during spells of self-inflicted unemployment, Vance’s mother bleeds her parents white over the course of her adult life. By the time Mamaw dies and Vance is left to settle her estate, her only remaining asset is her house. If she hadn’t died at the peak of the housing bubble, Vance estimates, her estate would have been bankrupt.
Thought experiment: Imagine these people living on minimum wage or welfare. Imagine them living in a black ghetto in Detroit rather than a white ghetto in Ohio.
Vance, who tells his story with admirable humility, entered into a period in his teenage years where he seemed set to follow in his family’s footsteps. He nearly failed out of school, and, rather than being horrified by the sometimes violent dramatic performances within his family, he came to look forward to domestic conflicts, savoring them as a form of entertainment. He says that he was spared entering fully into that despair and chaos by the intervention of certain “loving people.”
That is not usually how one hears Marine drill instructors described.
Vance had the good sense to delay college and enlist in the Marine Corps instead. And the Marine Corps is one of the few remaining American institutions that delivers more or less exactly as advertised. Vance entered the boot camp pudgy, disorganized, immature, and lacking in confidence. He left it harder, wiser, and more capable. His account of his time in the Marines is in fact one of the most interesting sections of the book, and the one that points both to the promise and shortcomings of public-policy interventions to counter the dysfunction of the white underclass. As Vance puts it, the Marines take in new recruits under an assumption of maximum ignorance, i.e., that they do not know the basics of anything, from personal hygiene to keeping a schedule. The Marine Corps interferes in Vance’s life in intensely invasive and personal ways: When he decides he needs to buy a car, an older Marine is dispatched to make sure he doesn’t buy something stupid and stops him from signing a high-interest financing contract with the dealer, steering him instead toward a much better deal available through the Marines’ credit union.
The man who did not know how to handle automotive financing works in finance today. By his own account, he did not know that “finance” was an industry and a career option until well into his college education. Things like how to dress for a job interview and how to conduct himself at a business dinner—he’s flummoxed to learn that there’s more than one kind of white wine—simply were not within his experience.
That sort of thing is awkward, and there are tens of millions of Americans who have had such fish-out-of-water experiences on their way up. The truth is, our schools and other institutions do a pretty good job of identifying the J.D. Vances of the world, thanks in no small part to standardized testing, though of course committed and engaged teachers play an indispensable role, too. But consider what it took to turn Vance’s life around and get him ready for Ohio State and Yale. Short of universal or near-universal military conscription—something that would be resisted both by the public and by the military, which is still resisting the politicians’ efforts to transform it entirely into a social-services agency—what policy options do we have to intervene in the lives of young men and women who come from backgrounds like Vance’s, but who are even worse off in both economic and social-capital terms, and who do not have the innate intelligence to cut it in Silicon Valley or who lack comparable skills and talents? We know what to do about poor kids with IQs of 120—what about the ones with IQs of 100? What about those with IQs of 90?
J.D. Vance may have set out to write something like Angela’s Ashes, exploring the interaction between addiction, poverty, pride, and clannishness, but what he has delivered is a personal supplement to Albion’s Seed, updating us on the decline of the Scots-Irish communities whose submersion in atavistic hinterland folkways keeps them in poverty even when they are not, strictly speaking, poor. It is an engaging and at times fascinating read, and one that contains, despite Vance’s best efforts, very little to support a case for hope.