J D Vance
19 April 2017
Last week, I read J D Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, a book that was much talked about when it came out last fall. Already somewhat concerned about the outcome of the presidential election, I wanted to pretend that hillbillies, among other types, didn’t exist, so I took no notice. But last week, casting about for something to read on the Kindle at bedtime (and worried about overexposing myself to Rachel Cusk), I thought, why not? By now, I had read a piece by Vance in one of the magazines, and found it literate if efficient. The hollers of Kentucky are not my cup of tea at all, but I trusted Vance’s crisp prose for the ride, and I was not disappointed.
Kentucky is really just a curtain-raiser. Most of Hillbilly Elegy describes the author’s childhood in Middletown, Ohio, a small city, once centered around Armco Steel, midway between Cincinnati and Dayton. Middletown is even less my cup of tea — not a cup of tea at all, really. What held my attention was the growth of Vance’s sense of self, sustained against a background of serious family dysfunction. The problem was Vance’s mother, a woman whose personal weakness allowed her to fall from a high point of high-school salutatorian into the bog of heroin addiction. Along the way, she provided her son with something like fifteen father substitutes, some of whom she married. His mother’s mother, Mamaw, a fierce person, saw him saw him through the worst of it, and he managed to spend the last three years of high school living with her. Then he did something really smart: he joined the Marines, and the Marines taught him how to take care of himself. Then he was ready for college, which he completed in twenty-three months. Yale Law followed; Vance distinguished himself there by editing the Law Review and completing a judicial clerkship. He now works, it seems, for a firm owned by Peter Thiel.
While I grasp the implications of Vance’s title, I wonder if Hillbilly Anthem might have been better, because, for all their antics, Vance is proud of his people. There is a feeling that what was clearly dysfunctional behavior in Middletown was merely erratic or unlawful in Kentucky. Leaving home, despite short-term economic prosperity, has not been good to the hillbillies. An ethos designed to cope with harsh circumstances falls apart in softer ones. Of all the voices that I have heard raised against government interference in family affairs, Vance’s is the only one that I would trust, for it is completely devoid of the self-congratulation that spoils so much conservative thinking. Vance did not do it his way. He did it the Mamaw way, and then the Marine way, and even after all of that he learned how to do it the Yale way. Vance was never too proud to learn, or to take help when it was honorably offered. I would be willing to give his call for tough medicine a try if I believed that the American government would discipline the plutocrats who have converted our economy into a financialized bazaar populated by rentiers and their servants. Vance has nothing to say about that side of things.
For all its vicissitudes, Vance recalls his childhood lovingly. There’s more than macho pride to his affection. This was as foreign to me as his experience in the Marines. I don’t look back on my childhood with affection — or with any other strong emotion, either. So detached am I now from that world (even while living in an apartment full of inherited furniture and knick-knacks) that I worried, about ten years ago, about being “on the spectrum.” Now, I certainly don’t envy Vance his childhood, however loving. It reads like a nightmare. My own was but a grey stretch, without cuts or bruises. There may have been a dark streak running through it, a perennial worry that my adoptive parents would “take me back,” even though I knew that this “couldn’t happen.” I knew that this couldn’t happen, but I also knew that my mother was at times so out of her mind with dissatisfaction that she must have thought of calling a lawyer for advice. (Maybe she did, behind my father’s back. Maybe they both called.) I don’t want to overdo this melodramatic dread, though; it was hardly something that gnawed at me every day. Most of the time, I was a comfortable brat. But now I think of it, perhaps what drove my mother crazy even more than my misbehavior (which was almost always misdemeanorish) was my lack of pride and loyalty. I took all the comfort that Bronxville had to offer, but I was ashamed of myself for doing so.
Truman Capote once said that he and Perry Smith, his subject in In Cold Blood, had grown up in the same house, but that while Capote left it by the front door (for prosperity), Smith went out by the back (and to crime). I thought of this reading Hillbilly Elegy. It was as though J D Vance walked into the front door of a big house that I had lived in long ago. I crept out of that house, taking forever to leave. The actual house that I moved into was smaller but much more suitable, but the house that I really live in is a mansion without end.
It is history, not family. We have been here a long time.