During my convalescence from the flu, I read several books. It has been years since I've read that much in a short period of time. I realize how much time I spend on my phone or the Internet rather than sitting for hours with a good book. But that is a post for another time. For now, here are my thoughts on a book people have been talking about for months: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.
Prior to picking it up, the only thing I'd heard about Hillbilly Elegy was that it was the answer so many people had been searching for to make sense of the presidential election of 2016. Otherwise, I knew nothing. I was somewhat intrigued by this whole election-answer thing, but mostly I was just compelled by the title and the fact that the book is nonfiction.
I read the introduction first, obviously, and I became so excited that I actually sat up straighter in the bathtub (where I do most reading) and took notice. Vance's writing is blunt in the way that someone writes if he doesn't have too many dogs in the fight. In other words, it's a little edgy (cuss words), and he has that feeling of telling it like it is rather than massaging his story for an editorial staff wanting to make a difficult subject palatable for a wide, educated audience of NPR listeners.
Of course, that's probably exactly what he did, but he did it so well that it comes across as true, authentic and raw. Alas, I was pulled in nonetheless.
What makes Vance the perfect person to talk (and write) about what it means to grow up hillbilly (or redneck, if this was a book about Texas) is that he isn't doing it from an ivory tower of academia where so many of these stories are told from collected data and someone else's anecdotal stories. He lived it. He grew up in a poor, uneducated and dysfunctional place and time, and with a family who, bless their hearts, tried their best but often succumbed to the world around them. Vance's tale involves drug addiction, broken relationships, insecurity (of every kind), love, loyalty and the weight of expectation or, in Vance's case, a lack thereof. It's a story of how one kid struggled to keep afloat, skirting the wrong side of the law, taking care of the people who should have been taking care of him and learning to detach to survive.
I liked this book, and I didn't like this book. There are some books I never want to end. There are books so poignant, I have to set them down while reading just to process the words, ideas and thoughts behind a single page. Hillbilly Elegy wasn't, for me, one of these books. While Vance's story is interesting and full of larger-than-life characters, it never pulled me in or made me care about any of the people he wrote about, including Vance himself. I felt, reading Hillbilly Elegy, as if I was watching an episode of Jerry Springer. Some of the details were stunning and horrible; most of them have become shockingly mainstream. Perhaps I have simply been desensitized to this sort of tale because we've all heard it time and again. Facebook is littered with stories of abuse and neglect from parents or society. I can hardly pull up Yahoo's front page (which I do for email purposes) and not see a shocking headline: heroin addicted parents passed out in their car, their two-year-old in the backseat alone; small children die of starvation because their parents died of an overdose and nobody knew; CPS missed all sorts of red flags from overworked, under qualified case managers and something horrific happened as a result. The list goes on.
So, I wasn't shocked by Hillbilly Elegy. More than that, I just never saw any of the characters as more than flat or one dimensional in an all-too-familiar story. Vance gives too few emotional details to draw me into the characters, which resulted in a lack of connection. You could argue that my connection to the characters isn't the point of Hillbilly Elegy. The point of the book is to explore the limited options, poor choices and fading hope for a large segment of the American population, but for me, it was all too detached to feel like anything more than a very long news piece, written at least by a person who'd lived it. I think there is a certain detachment one experiences from childhood trauma like the stuff Vance lived and writes about; he speaks to this in the book, the idea that not reacting is a reaction of its own. I relate to and identify with that, as a person who experienced some of what Vance writes about myself, as a kid. There is no way to logically deal with much of life (particularly as a kid), so there is a self-protection element of detaching that enables people to weather the storm. While I understand this, I think it was this exact detachment I felt as a reader. Mary Karr writes a lot about perspective in terms of memoir, about the distance necessary to tell a story like Vance's with emotion and empathy. I'm not sure Vance is there yet, but that's a big statement to make from a woman who has never written a memoir herself.
There was quite a bit I did like in Hillbilly Elegy, however. Vance has a certain freedom from which to not only write about the story of hillbilly life (since he lived it) but also offer social commentary on the subject from a first-hand perspective. That is refreshing. It's hard to hear about the plight of any segment of the population from people who are viewing it from the distance of never having lived it. Vance has lived it. Because of that, he sometimes has pretty blunt verbal lashings for his own people and a take-no-prisoners attitude about what might make it better. He writes concrete sentences about what is wrong with a swath of American society that doesn't include such softening tactics as 'may be' or 'possibly.' Vance doesn't have to include a caveat in every sentence or conclusion, which is what I found most compelling about his book. The story is real, and his thoughtfulness and reflections are equally real. While the writing didn't stand out to me as a masterpiece of emotional connection, Vance's message is unique in that he is at least qualified to offer it. I didn't realize, until I read Hillbilly Elegy, just how off-point and warped so much of social commentary has become, in large part because it is created by people outside the proverbial circle.
I will say, I was drawn to this book and read it in a few days, which is a pretty big deal for me. I so often start a book and then dread continuing. The subject itself is fascinating for someone compelled by social issues, cultural anthropology and the psychology of a significant population of Americans. I'm not sure how it answers the questions raised by the presidential election. I'm not just saying that to be glib, either. But I have a serious distaste for talking politics, so I'll leave it up to the individual reader to determine if that is even relevant in reading Hillbilly Elegy.
The final thought I have about the book is a somewhat confusing one. What makes the book compelling is Vance's first-hand experience and thoughts on a subject that grabs so much of our attention but that we, as a society, feel ill-equipped to address. There is poverty, addiction, hopelessness, apathy, desperation, frustration, anger and detachment in this book. I think there is much of that the world, not only in America (obviously). There is also love, loyalty, laughter, head-shaking mirth and color. There is a lot of color.
But there is, in the end, a lot of confusion about what to do. The book asks the questions and, at times, offers possible solutions, but the overwhelming sense is this: what can we do to address all of this hopelessness, confusion, desperation, addiction and apathy? Even Vance can't answer that. It's a feeling we all know too well. We see the problems, but we can't grapple our way to the answers. Hillbilly Elegy left me with the feeling I've had so often working in aid/development and even education: the answers have to be organic and have to come from within. No matter if we are working on water security in Africa or food security in America, the solutions have to start from within the population needing the answers.
But what does that leave the rest of us to do?
Has anyone read Hillbilly Elegy? I'm curious to hear thoughts and know how everyone else experienced the book.