I just finished another of my Christmas books, Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. This was basically the author’s memoir of growing up, in Ohio, as the grandson of Kentucky hill folk who’d moved there looking for a better life, and his struggles with poverty and family dysfunction before his own escape up the socioeconomic ladder. The book has a bit of celebrity status right now, as various blue-state types try to figure out what’s going on in the Appalachian and Rust Belt hinterlands, and what went wrong in the last election…
The first thing I’ll say is the good news: this book is a fast and interesting read, and the author is personable, and engaging if occasionally prone to humble-bragging, and he writes well. Parts of the story reminded me of my own family history, and the class anxieties that come with upward mobility over generations, while other parts were an unsparing look into the darker aspects of his own subculture.
But the bad news is, he never seems to get to the heart of the problems among the Hillbilly Diaspora. He sometimes resorts to church-and-family bromides, and other times seems to warn against the debilitating effects of welfare, but it’s mostly like he’s dancing around a garden variety conservatism. He never really came to any solid conclusion.
I finished the book feeling a bit let down.