Book Notes: J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy

If there is one word to describe the bestseller list, it’s escapism. Disillusioned Wall Street millionaires, representatives of the middle-class who live in mansions with private lakes, people who never had a stroke of work to do in their lives and are bored out of their heads populate the pages of current bestsellers. Things have become so bad that there are even several novels trying to milk World War II for excitement. Solzhenitsyn used to say that a writer turns to World War II out of sheer desperation when there is absolutely nothing else to write about. And unlike the current WWII milkmaids, Solzhenitsyn actually fought in the war.

After studying these reading options, one could conclude that nothing at all is happening in this country. There is no opioid epidemic that is killing off entire towns, there is no human tragedy on the scale of the one that gave us Grapes of Wrath happening right now, there are no decaying, rusting and collapsing villages strewn around all over the country. No, it’s all bored rich folks and their navel-gazing and the doomed love affairs of 70 years ago.

Since there are no works of fiction that talk about anything that matters today, one has to turn to non-fiction. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis lacks any artistic value and the author is a bit too primitive for my liking. But at least this autobiography tries to reflect on the collapse and chaos of life in Appalachia. Vance has been very successful at fleeing his sad little town in rural Ohio and becoming a graduate of Yale Law School. Many of his relatives and friends, however, are trapped in the Rust Belt hopelessness they have lived in their whole lives.

There is no single solution to the collapse of working class life in America. But Vance makes it clear that the narratives his fellow hillbillies get from the media, the Internet, and the politicians are not helping. “It’s not the government’s, Obama’s, or corporations’ fault you are a loser,” he points out. “It’s your own.”

The greatest tragedy of the people Vance knows in Appalachia is that they were so traumatized as children by the disgusting, utterly piggish behavior of their idiot parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc that the trauma hobbles them for life. And then they visit the same destruction on their own children and so on. 

I’m as different as one can imagine from this fellow, yet I can’t remember reading a book, a blog, an article, etc. by anybody I’d be able to identify like I did with him. At least, I didn’t feel like a creature from a different planet when I read this autobiography like I do when I read all these Amandas Marcotte, Jessicas Valenti, Jonathans Franzen, Toms Frank, the creepazoids on CHE or IHE, etc. Vance isn’t as dedicated to self-pity and drama-queenishness as these folks, and that’s something already. He does tend to exaggerate and even invent personal hardship but at least he’s trying to figure out the world. 

I liked this autobiography because it’s written by a real person with real questions about life and not by a robot who delivers canned narratives s/he thinks sound right and ideologically pre-approved.

5 thoughts on “Book Notes: J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy”

  1. You forgot to include the connection to the nation-state. Seriously. Except continuing to suffer from relatives, as they surely did in nation-state era, are they affected by the changing world? Do they get something positive from it?

    As for contemporary literature, today a Russian blogger compared the significance of “Snow” by the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk to Solzhenitsyn or / and “Quiet flows the Don.” He said reading “Snow” would help one understand Turkish realities similar to the significance of Solzhenitsyn in helping foreigners understand the realities of FSU. Never heard of “Snow” before.


    1. We all know how I love the nation-state. 😀 But in terms of individual lives, there’s always something- the erosion of the nation-state, the collapse of the USSR, recession, etc. Yet some people end up with failed lives and others with successful ones.


  2. Also, I have recently read a bestselling novel, “We Are Not Ourselves” by Matthew Thomas, and it definitely was not about “people who never had a stroke of work to do in their lives and are bored out of their heads.”

    I loved the novel despite something which is a huge spoiler to reveal, so I won’t, if you don’t want.

    You can check the first few pages on Amazon to see if you like the writing style. The book has also been translated into Russian, so I loaned it for my mother too.

    Would be very interesting to hear your take on the couple’s relationship.


  3. My father recommends God’s Little Acre as an accurate fiction portrayal of Appalachian life (this was his childhood life so he knows what he’s talking about.) I haven’t read it so I don’t know if you’d enjoy it, but it’s worth giving a try. Written in the 1930s.


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