The Narrow Purview of J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy

I just got around to reading J. D. Vance’s best-selling Hillbilly Elegy and realized I’d published the prequel in 2006 with my novel The Liquidators. Like my book, Hillbilly Elegy is set in a failing Middletown, Ohio, in the recent past and has a protagonist who makes a success out of failure. With Trump’s election, Vance’s memoir has become the go-to book for liberals hoping to understand white working class citizens who voted for Trump. For those of you even later than I getting to Hillbilly Elegy, it offers an extraordinarily detailed narrative of Vance’s childhood within a chaotic extended family hailing from the “hollers” of Kentucky. His father abandons his mother, who collects “step-fathers” in the low double figures and becomes addicted to opioids and heroin. J. D. is brought up, mostly, by his grandmother, a violent woman who threatens anyone who insults the “honor” of her family, and by his grandfather, a spendthrift alcoholic for much of his life. Although J. D. is a slacker in high school, he learns discipline in the Marines, attends college, graduates from Yale Law School, and now works for a hedge fund.

Because Hillbilly Elegy concentrates on a subset of the white working class — immigrants from Appalachia to Ohio — it is marginally useful for electoral sociology and psychology. Also: Vance occasionally alludes to conservative sociologists, but his book is almost completely anecdotal as Vance struggles to make his family representative of hillbilly culture, both its strengths — patriotism, independence, toughness, family loyalty — and its weaknesses — jingoism, ignorance, violence, family dysfunction. As an “elegy,” the book mourns the passing of hillbilly virtues without recognizing that they lead pretty directly to hillbilly failures. But this would be depressing, so Vance downplays cultural analysis, courts popularity, and gives readers a rages and rags to riches story of grit and perseverance as J. D., the juvenile delinquent, becomes J. D., the Juris Doctor.

For a Yale Law graduate, Vance is remarkably superficial when he does interpret the culture that he spends so many pages describing. We get simplistic economic causality: Appalachians migrated to Ohio for jobs at Armco Steel, and then surrendered to despair when the jobs petered out. Vance doesn’t dig back into his family and cultural history to investigate what kind of work habits — from subsistence or tobacco farming or coal mining — might have formed hillbillies and their behaviors. Instead of analyzing the environmental circumstances that made hillbillies resistant to the education that ultimately “saves” the author, Vance falls back on a largely discredited tribal explanation, the Scots-Irish thesis, for hillbillies’ resistance to adaptation.

Limited as sociology, economics, and history, Hillbilly Elegy also engages in, probably, unconscious racism. Although Middletown drew southern blacks, as well as Appalachian whites, to its factories, Vance says little about the relations of the two groups. As several critics of Hillbilly Elegy have noted, the book assumes a racial exceptionalism that goes something like this: although we hillbillies were white, northern whites treated us like blacks, and we then became like ghetto blacks with their chaotic families and welfare dependence and drug addiction. At its foundation, Hillbilly Elegy is an elegy for white privilege. One wants to ask Vance to explain recent statistics: why is it that whites, though more economically advantaged than blacks, have higher death rates from suicides and drug overdoses?

The elegy is an ancient literary form, one that is usually compressed, striving for linguistic elegance and symbolic resonance. Vance’s “elegy” resembles long-form journalism or extended documentary, an excess of specific, personal anecdotes when a few would do. Perhaps because he has dramatic dysfunctional subject matter, Vance is satisfied with stereotyped characters and with banal and often clichéd expression. He seems to take pride in falling back on his grandmother’s vulgarities and obscenities, as if they were last words, as if he were writing for her and not for people with more education than she had. With Vance and his feelings so much on center stage, the book is less an elegy than a hero story of the man who beat the odds by giving up many habits inculcated by his hillbilly past. The utter conventionality of its arc limits, in my opinion, the emotional, say nothing of the intellectual, impact it produces. This same conventionality may also explain why the book has already been optioned for a movie.

Perhaps, as a novelist, I expect too much from the 32-year-old autobiographer. Maybe I even resent his success. On the other hand, it could be that the liberals who have praised Vance are so desperate to understand Trump’s support among the white working class that they overlook the narrowness of Hillbilly Elegy. I don’t want to suggest that The Liquidators is a better book, but thinking about the novel helped me see the limitations of Vance’s memoir. As it happens, we were both living in Cincinnati, about a half hour from Middletown, when writing the books. Vance’s Middletown and my Middletown are similar, but my protagonist is about 30 years older than Vance and therefore knows the city as Vance could not. Thomas Bond’s people came from Mississippi, rather than Kentucky, and his father supplemented his work as a plumber (no Armco Steel or Sorg Paper for him) with an auction business. In this Middletown, failure had begun before the factories closed. Commercial and consumption patterns shifted to malls, and the town center hollowed out. Small businesses were forced to liquidate their stock. Thomas took over his father’s local business, rented trucks, hired drivers, and traveled all over the Midwest selling off the goods that no one would buy in the new consumer age. Before the corporations closed down factories, even larger corporations created chain stores and chain restaurants that disrupted middle class life in Middletown. Even Bond’s business, predicated on failure, fails as customers who used to come to the Liquidators’ giant fire sales have less disposable income or can order discounted goods online. Vance indirectly indicts his hillbillies’ association of the American Dream with consumption, buying things on credit they can’t afford. The Liquidators historicizes and anatomizes the dynamic of consumer culture as failure spreads outward from Middletown across Mid-America. What Vance doesn’t see is that his hillbillies were caught in an economic disruption that went beyond the loss of manufacturing jobs.

Most of Thomas Bond’s drivers are black. Vance’s white family sticks to Middletown and near environs even when unemployable there, “victims” of their false expectations based on racial superiority. The drivers for The Liquidators sacrifice the comforts of home to make a living on the road and, in a way, to lord it over the white consumers who follow their trailers to the giant consumer show. The drivers are not heroic, but they also do not give in to the despair and helplessness of Vance’s white acquaintances and family members. To his credit, Vance takes advantage of his “privilege,” succeeds, and becomes rich. Bond and his drivers ultimately fail, but Bond has an idea: create a tourist attraction in an old Middletown factory, “The Museum of Lead,” that will give bring visitors to the city, give his drivers jobs, and revive Middletown. It’s the Museum of Lead that provides the elegy of The Liquidators, for the Museum demonstrates that humans have for thousands of years — long before the alcohol and drugs of the working class — been liquidating themselves by consuming the toxic substance even when they knew it was destructive. For whom is the novel an elegy: for those hunter-gatherers who existed before mining, before heavy metals, before the consumption of poisons, before consumption itself as a kind of poison.

Perhaps you can understand why I find Vance’s book too narrow in its focus — temporally, spatially, racially, symbolically. White failure is not new, as Faulkner knew and showed in possibly the greatest American novel, Absalom, Absalom! where the hillbilly Thomas Sutpen leaves Appalachia to create a slave plantation in Mississippi, which ultimately fails because of Sutpen’s belief in racial exceptionalism. White failure was encoded in the Constitution. It just took a couple hundred years for those cosseted white folks of Vance’s Appalachia to realize — if they do — that their pride was ill-founded. My Thomas Bond is an heir of Sutpen, and The Liquidators is both a sequel to and retelling of Absalom, Absalom! Of course, my novel fails, as any novel does that puts itself beside Faulkner’s, but The Liquidators attempts to widen and deepen the contexts in which one can try to understand the failure of Middletown and its inhabitants. Like his uneducated characters, Vance presumes that improvement and success are America’s promise, perhaps because he succeeded. If Vance had read Faulkner, instead of Vance’s bootstrap conservative sociologists, he might have recognized that failure is endemic. Even The Museum of Lead fails to be built. It remains only an instructive idea and symbol in The Liquidators.