J. D. Vance's "Hillbilly Elegy" is a very easy read. It can be read in a day. The prose is pedestrian and the best phrase of the entire book is the excellent book title. The words "Hillbilly Elegy" are so poetic with such lovely assonance and so applicable to the subject matter that you get hopeful about the rest of the story. Unfortunately Vance, while not a terrible writer, does not write in a very memorable style. The book isn't burdensome to read, however. Vance is straightforward, his subject matter is compelling and his message is so tied to current trends that the book zips by quickly.
Many people have already written about JD Vance's autobiography where he describes his difficult childhood in the nineties being raised by a heroin-addicted mother in impoverished southern Ohio. In the book Vance reveals his political affiliation (Republican) up front and early. Consequently Vance unfortunately advances a lot of myths about what's wrong with American workers today. People are lazy. Not willing to put in extra hours. People talk on cell phones while buying free food with food stamps. It's the usual smug complaint of white males in their early thirties who have no childcare issues. "I can work 60 hours a week, why can't you?" The problems of single mothers being unable to work due to the high cost of childcare doesn't even occur to him. The fact that cell phones have become almost as essential as clothes in modern society- and often cheaper than a lot of food- blows past Vance's tiresome GOP victim-blaming arguments.
Vance is on firmer ground when he describes his mother's struggles with addiction and the complicated feelings that he continues to have towards family members that failed him in many ways during his childhood. He describes one disgusting and infuriating scene where his mother, still a licensed RN, shoveled food into her mouth during a restaurant dinner while she was too stoned to close her mouth and swallow. She would wake up enough to spoon potatoes into her mouth and then nod out again, potatoes dripping out of her open jaw while her children and husband looked on in shock.
A few of Vance's opinions feel like gaslighting. Vance insists that his working class white neighbors' resentments of Obama was class-based against Obama's Harvard background rather than race-based. That simply doesn't ring true. Vance's downplaying of racial hatred continues in other passages. While describing his flirtation with liberalism as a student at Yale Law, Vance described how "I'd vacationed in Panama and England. I shopped at Whole Foods. I tried to break my addiction to 'refined processed sugars.' I worried about racial prejudice in my family and friends. None of these things is bad on its own. In fact, most of them are good- visiting England was a childhood dream; eating less sugar is good for your health." Ooo…. the missing items that Vance neglected to list as "good" are subtle but disturbing. The whiter habits of liberals (visiting England, cutting sugar in your diet) are "good." The more woke activities (visiting Panama, worrying about racial prejudice in your family and friends) do not make the cut as "good" in Vance's estimation. Bits of uncomfortably unaware phrases like the one I quoted above litter "Hillbilly Elegy" to a great extent.
Another unintentionally unaware passage in "Hillbilly Elegy" is a cameo by controversial Yale law professor Amy Chua. Vance describes Prof. Chua with great affection. Vance, understandably, had no knowledge that Prof. Chua was about to be investigated by Yale for allegedly grooming pretty female law students for Judge Kavanaugh. Nevertheless, Vance's descriptions of his conversations with Prof. Chua show that Chua seemed to get oddly inquisitive when it came to her students' romantic lives. "(Chua) got personal. She knew that I had a girlfriend and that I was crazy about her. 'This clerkship is the type of thing that destroys relationships. If you want my advice, I think you should prioritize your girlfriend.'" Vance, with this description of Prof. Chua's advice (which she apparently okayed prior to "Hillbilly Elegy" going to press), lends a great deal of credence to Chua's female accusers who described Chua requiring them to have "model-like" appearances before she okayed their clerkships with Judge Kavanaugh.
For all of "Hillbilly Elegy"'s flaws there is a strong and interesting theme. Young Americans tend to underestimate their own abilities in the 21st century. Young white men especially seem to undervalue their potential, spiraling down behind video game consoles and loneliness. Young white men are finding solace in alt-right chatrooms and incel online groups. (Vance doesn't mention "incel" groups in "Hillbilly Elegy" but the incel fuel of frustrated while male despair is a theme with which Vance is familiar.) Vance himself, a flabby internet troll in high school struggling to maintain a "C" average, decides to enlist in the Marines after graduation. When Vance gets accepted into Ohio State he has no way to pay tuition except through the GI Bill. Used to a sedentary existence of six hour video game sessions and pizza pockets, Vance surprises himself by managing to make it through boot camp. Vance morphs from fat teenage to US Marine able to run a 6 minute mile and complete a tour of duty in Iraq. Invigorated by his new sense of discipline, Vance throws himself into college life at Ohio State. Vance graduates with a BA in three years, gets accepted at Yale with a full scholarship, and is an Ivy League educated lawyer by the book's end. Not bad for an impoverished hillbilly child with a junkie mother. But Vance argues that he is not special and that most young Americans can pull off what he did if they had more faith in their potential. It's a good argument and one I find largely convincing with a few caveats. Vance was lucky that he was still childless when he applied for college instead of trapped in early motherhood or fatherhood. That played a large part in his success and Vance offers no real solutions to other who find their opportunities hamstrung by family responsibilities. Still, Vance's own personal story is inspiring and he should be applauded for his accomplishments.