Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
I'm not sure who this book was written for. It wasn't me, which is fine.
Best case, this was written for other strugglers, those curious and intelligent enough to want to break out of their own binds, but who are limited without the right model of their own problems or the right example of a feasible solution. It's written at a high school level, not in the sense that it has grammar issues or is incoherent, but in that it's so simple and full of cliches and unironic tropes that only someone who hasn't read much or seen much could possibly take it totally seriously. It's one order away from ending with a "...happily ever after. The End.", but that might work for the capable but held back hillbilly excuser.
But I think I'm trying too hard to be generous. The book reads, transparently, more like a memoir than a recommendation or an essay.
And so if it is a memoir, then it's more of a high school reunion Cadillac than some insightful, nuanced psychological explanation. "I came from the dirt, got my shit together thanks to willpower and the grace of loved ones, and now I'm doing great". The author seems to think his story is tied up nicely with an implied "...and you can, too!". But, oblivious to the author, it's more like "...aren't you proud?" or more like "...aren't you jealous?".
And so if it is a demonstration of J.D. Vance becoming a man and an intellectual -- by way of The Marines, of a finally realized education and the resulting J.D. from Yale -- then why is his language so immature? One irony of his writing: he puts his family's (e.g. Grandma's) crassness next to his own (claimed to be) polished explanations, obviously trying to affect some kind of salt-of-the-earth, haven't-lost-my-roots expectation in his readers, that he can then spike down with unexpected sophisticated explanation. But instead of that spike, you get some obvious two-sentence fact or some -- I'm sorry -- dorky story: e.g., rednecks are loyal, drugs are bad, diligence predicts success. e.g. I'm the schoolyard vigilante that beat the shit out of that bully, I used to eat cake and now I can run 6 min miles, etc.
His talk of the marines could be a feed for #justbootthings memes. His being impressed with a classmate calling a stranger's head small, unironically and out of the blue, because of how matter of fact the comment was, will make anyone that's gone to an engineering school roll their eyes. Big Bang Theory and its main character are revolting for the same reason.
Could it be that, rather than his past being some twenty-two variable equation of strife and encouragement that eventually yielded greatness, J.D. Vance is just a nerd whose talents demonstrated themselves despite where and how he was brought up?
There were contradicting points in the book. On one hand he seems to be arguing that people need to embrace upward mobility as a possibility, get out of their own way, take responsibility for their actions, etc. Then he goes out of his way to say his life was bad getting worse until he found the stable environment of his grandma's house. And then he goes on to say he was basically useless until the paternal influence of The Marines taught him how to tie his shoes. Granted, he got through it, and that is something to be proud of, and I'm not judging him or his journey, but rather his explanation of his success and how universally applicable it is. Where's the line between will and environment? Nature and nurture? These questions are hard for a reason. J.D. Vance argues both sides, folds his arms and says, "See? All settled."
e.g., if you were to give J.D. Vance's bathroom-break-taking reject coworker a stint in The Marines and four years at grandmas's basement to study, would he (i.e. the bathroom-breaker) get into Yale? Would he get past the first week of boot camp? I doubt it, and I doubt Vance would disagree. So how does Vance's advice of straightening up and taking responsibility help this reject, if we all agree that type of person is some level of irredeemable? And how did he (i.e. the reject) get to the point of being so useless in the first place? Isn't Vance's advice on the level of "to jump 10 feet higher, simply grow 10 feet taller"? I don't know the answers, but apparently neither does the author.
All of that being said, these are my thoughts held against the light of my expectations. It's unfair of me to not consider that J.D. Vance never asked for this book to become much of anything. Perhaps, instead, it was meant to be a cathartic exercise to honor and thank his grandmother and to articulate his story, and now here I am cruelly judging it as something more. One thing I absolutely can not deny Vance is that his life has been impressive. His mother's behavior was ridiculous, his living situations absurd, his access limited, yet he took all that handicap all the way through soldierhood, Yale, a wife, and beyond. He is accomplished and I am impressed. I'd probably enjoy going to the bar with him, so long as I was allowed to bust his balls and roll my eyes.