Like many (most?) who have read J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, I didn’t hear of the book until after the election. In those weeks that followed, it became mandatory reading, and so I complied. The hype seems to have been justified, and though I don’t think the book explains Trump, it adds needed context to the social morass of post-industrial America.
I felt myself comparing it to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. But unlike AHWOSG, where the protagonist’s parents die early on, leaving Eggers and Toph free to escape their past, Vance’s tale revolves around his inability to escape his dysfunctional family and the milieu in which he grew up. And unlike AHWOSG, which is ecstatic, optimistic, and edging on the profound, Vance’s story is depressive, pessimistic, and base.
Though I found his personal story incredibly compelling and moving and the portrait of his community to feel quite real, ultimately Vance lost me in the final chapters (this may have been influenced by looking up his current political views prior to actually finishing the book). Vance escaped his fate, but I’m not sure what the takeaway should be – one seems to be an echo of Hillary’s “village” sentiment, as Vance himself credits his grandmother and grandfather as an indispensable safety net when his mother neglected her responsibilities. It’s not the memoirist’s burden to offer solutions for the problems they identify, but I felt myself cringing as Vance blamed a lack of thrift as the root cause of his community’s affliction. Perhaps though Vance views himself as the solution – watch this space for more.