Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance is a memoir of one man’s life growing up in the Appalachia region of Kentucky.
That’s all you need to know. This book is a memoir, yet it is being hailed as being something more. It touches on topics surrounding the (loss of) American dream, and the struggle of white rural Americans, but only in the most surface-level sense. These themes happen to be vaguely talked about in the book because they are related to Vance’s family, but don’t be surprised when you find that they are not deeply explored at all.
Why shouldn’t you be surprised? Well, Vance himself wastes precious “Introduction” space at the beginning of the book telling you, the reader, all of the reasons why he is not qualified to write this book. His reasons are many: he’s not old enough, he’s not a celebrity, he’s “just” a Yale alum, he doesn’t have a wildly successful company or non-profit. To those who have complimented him in the past as being something great, he says “bullshit”, that they are wrong.
As a reader, this kind of introduction does a wonderful job of making me want to return the book to the shelf and find something else worth my time. If the author himself has just told me it would be a better use of my time, why not?
Nevertheless, I persisted…
…and continued reading even though the introduction left a bad taste in my mouth that stuck for the remainder of the book.
Vance does not examine the struggle of white rural American on a level deeper than what affected his own community. Although there is nothing wrong with that, it means the book should stop being billed as something more than a memoir. Not only does Hillbilly Elegy not examine the struggle more deeply, but Vance shares his story in the most basic way someone possibly could, by which I mean this writing is not special.
If you have a desire to read about the life of someone you don’t know, no matter who they are or how interested you are in the place they grew up, you may enjoy this. I just happen to prefer books that are well-written.
If you are well aware that the reader may have no clue who you are, you ought to do a damn good job of giving them something memorable to walk away with by way of your writing, not just the horrors of your personal life story. I would almost venture to say that Vance himself is not a writer, rather someone who thinks his story is important enough that he should “become one” during the national election in 2016, proving his own self-fulfilling prophecy in the Introduction that he is nothing special. If this book had been published any other year, it would not have received the attention that it has.
My sympathies go out to those living in rural America and struggling, both past and present. I believe that this is something our government has a huge opportunity to fix. It will take a lot, on the behalf of many and yes, Vance does help get the word out by telling his own story.
However, my sympathies only go so far for someone who is white, male, straight, protestant.
If you take someone who fits that description out of the Kentucky Appalachia region, he will have a much greater chance of succeeding than someone who is not white, not male or gender conforming, not heterosexual, and not a member of the protestant faith, or any faith.
It really isn’t shocking, then, that, as Vance himself said, he became successful outside of his hometown, going on to serve in the Marines and earn a degree from Yale. In that sense, maybe Vance is right, maybe he really isn’t anyone special. He’s taken advantage of a system designed to let himself and others who fit his cooker-cutter description, right? Even if he is a hillbilly, he still has more of a chance at success than most minorities and women and that is why this book left me feeling indifferent. It also left me feeling especially glad that I didn’t pay the overpriced $27.99 for it but chose to wait a few months until it became available at the library. I have zero recommendations to anyone to read this for any reason other than just literary FOMO because it’s just a memoir and nothing more.