A Hillbilly With Incredible Hindsight

I was going to write a review of this bookHillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance. I suppose when I'm done, it'll be something like a review. But the truth is there's just not a lot I can say other than: you should really, really read this book.

Vance's book is already a bestseller, for good reason. So excited was I to receive it that I opened it to the opening paragraph straight away. I didn't read any of the blurbs on the back. I was immediately hooked. Upon finishing the book, I finally turned it over and read what other people said about it. My interest in writing a review vanished when I read what Amy Chua had to say:

A beautifully and powerfully written memoir about the author's journey from a troubled, addiction-torn Appalachian family to Yale Law School, Hillbilly Elegy is shocking, heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, and hysterically funny. It's also a profoundly important book, one that opens a window on a part of America usually hidden from view and offers genuine hope in the form of hard-hitting honesty. Hillbilly Elegy announces the arrival of a gifted and utterly original new writer and should be required reading for everyone who cares about what's really happening in America.

That pretty much says everything I wanted to say. I wholeheartedly concur. To whet your appetite even more, read this excellent interview with Vance by Rod Dreher.

But I'll say a few things more. A number of years ago renowned sociologist Charles Murray published a book called Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. It was the kind of book a sociologist would write. Lots of charts and discussions of percentiles and quintiles. An incredibly important book, but not one destined to be read by the masses. Murray documents the astonishing divide between 'two Americas,' the upper-class elite (which he labels "Belmont") and the world of lower-to-middle class whites ("Fishtown"). Conventional wisdom usually believes that Belmont, the elite, liberal upper-crust, is the haven of those who eschew traditional family values, whereas the common folk--the NASCAR-loving, country music-blaring, beer swilling types--are those that keep the flame of God, country, and family.

What Murray discovered is the opposite. Wealthy liberals, in fact, largely practice traditional values; they just don't preach them. The white lower classes, on the other hand, preach traditional values, but don't practice them. The levels of social disintegration, broken families, crime, poverty, drug addiction, welfare, and so on, among Fishtown are astonishing.

Murray's book has just been given an epic illustration: a raw and captivating tale of one young Hillbilly (a term that refers to the "hill" folk of Appalachia) who escaped the spiral of addiction and misery through the love and support of deeply flawed, but loving, people. But it's not just captivating in the sense that watching a car accident is captivating. It is captivating because Vance has somehow, in some way, achieved a remarkable "30,000-foot" view over his own history. He probes his experiences and memories in all their complexity to offer real insight into the plight of the white working (or, mostly not working) poor. And he concludes that no political platform, no government program, is capable of truly healing what is a deeply profound spiritual and cultural problem. That's not to say nothing can be done. There is plenty that can be done at the level of local communities and civil society. But it is a clarion reminder to his own people that nobody did this to usWe did this to us.

If you want to understand--truly understand--how politics is downstream from culture, you should read Hillbilly Elegy.

And, finally, if you want to understand--truly understand--the phenomenon of Donald J. Trump and his success among the white working class, you should read Hillbilly Elegy.

Brian Mattson