Jun 3, 2017

Ivy Elegy, Hillbilly Elegy--Terry Does Both

men's book club review summary of Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
Dinner and Acknowledgments

Our host and our author have much in common.  Raised in insular, rust belt communities, each made his way to the Ivy League and then to the west coast, where they both achieved a measure of professional success.  (Note my guarded language here, Terry.)  So far, so good.  But, as Terry showed us last Wednesday, they diverge completely in their approach to food.

Among his hillbilly kin, young J.D. Vance was content with Taco Bell and McDonald's.  Not so, Terry, who simulated hillbilly cuisine the only way he knows how:  with recipes from the New York Times!  Yes, that bastion of coastal elitism was Terry's source for every single dish we sampled.  Not that we were complaining, mind you.  Thanks to Melissa Clark (Peter, still your beating heart!), we ate our way through rural Kentucky in fine style.  Her recipes, executed to perfection by Terry, produced a very tender pulled pork and slaw, a deliciously moist brown butter corn bread, and two sides of pinto beans.  For dessert, Terry assembled an excellent rhubarb cobbler

We were grateful to Terry for his hospitality while also commiserating with his personal circumstances.  This spring, both of Terry's parents passed away.  For that, Terry, we tender our utmost support and offer the condolences of those who have experienced similar loss.

Our Review and Discussion of Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

The irony of Terry's menu speaks to the distressing dietary habits of poor communities everywhere, including Appalachia.  In Vance's 2016 memoir of growing up in southern Ohio to Kentucky-bred hillbilly parents, he devotes much of his narrative to the self-defeating choices of his contemporaries. Whether it's abandoning school, avoiding work, abusing drugs and alcohol, forgoing marriage or commitment--Vance paints a bleak portrait of a community he clearly knows well. 

Vance's story alternates between social commentary, hillbilly ethnography, and personal memoir.  Alas, each was a disappointment.  Cribbing from a review I found online, I criticized Vance's effort as "workmanlike." His writing is clear but he relies on platitudes to explain his success and others' failures.  Larry agreed and noted that while the reader is force-fed a summary of the author's many accomplishments, the searing intimacy that elevated JR Moehringer's memoir, A Tender Bar, was missing from Vance's story.

As a social and ethnographic study, both Terry and Doug were disappointed in Hillbilly Elegy and found in Hochschild's Strangers in Their Own Land a much more thoughtful explanation of white working class anger, the battle of myth and self-interest, and the resulting voting choices that have fueled the Tea Party and, by extension, the Trump phenomenon. (In a cynical aside, Doug noted that Vance appears to have been inspired by the wildly successful family confessional of his favorite law school professor and noted Tiger Mother, Amy Chua.)

Most distressing to all of us was Vance's lack of originality.  He may have been the product of a hillbilly culture, but his descriptions of it aren't illuminating. Only halfway through, Armando found Vance's memoir formulaic.  Dean criticized the story as repetitious and Tom saw nothing different about Vance's family and friends than could be seen in any impoverished American community. Most telling, though, was Dan's indifference.  Hailing from the same area of Ohio as Vance, he found nothing insightful or provocative in the characters or communities depicted by Vance. 

Our Rating of Hillbilly Elegy

We selected Hillbilly Elegy hoping to understand what has changed in middle America that explains why the politics of so many poor and working class whites have shifted to the right.  All we learned last Wednesday was that better explanations are available elsewhere.  Despite our disappointment, we gave Vance a 6.0 for his personal accomplishments, if not his narrative ambitions.

Next Up:  Moonglow by Michael Chabon and Stay Interesting by Jonathan Goldsmith

Larry offered us an interesting set of options for our June reading, including a book about testosterone, a subject in which we feigned no interest. Among the others, we rejected Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Time as too reminiscent of our previous title about the 1930's Dust Bowl  (Bad Land by Jonathan Raban).  We also passed on The Narrow Road to the Deep North in favor of lighter fare by Michael Chabon.  So, later this month we will see if Chabon's true/fictional/neither elegy to his grandfather is the summer read we've been waiting for.

As an add to our usual fare, the folks at Dutton sent us advance copies of a memoir by "the most interesting man in the world."  We hope that Jonathan Goldsmith will restore our faith in the power of memoir.


  1. You were all aware I was heading back for a 40th high school reunion in Circleville OH (also referred as Circletucky by a few classmates). As you recall Vance mentioned Dwight Yoakam’s song Readin’, Rightin’ and Route 23, Roundtown sets right on that hillbilly highway and not much has changed. No, actually it has….back in the 70’s this town of 11,000 had 1 theater, 2 drive in theaters, 2 bowling alleys, 1 public swimming pool, 1 country club and another 9 hole public golf course plus plenty of industry to keep the majority of people employed. The racial makeup was pretty much +90% white.
    Today: (13,000-14,000 people, average income: $35,000) the downtown theater is vacant, naturally both Drive-in theaters have vanished, one has been replaced by a church and the other is a corn field (I think they grow popcorn where the concession stand was located). Circle D bowling alley burned down and the other one on Route 23 is now an Auto Parts/Salvation lot. Industry has diminished to a point that the private country club is now a public course. Sand traps are worse than Peacock Gaps (Thank you Andrew for addressing that issue). The 9 hole course that I grew up playing has expanded to a full 18, cost to play, get this Andrew, $21.00/w cart. Beer: $2.00. The swimming pool has been filled and not replaced as well as the one at the country club.
    After many late nights drinking cans of Busch and shooting the bull with some good friends, I must concur with JD that opiates are a major problem with these small towns. My friends have pointed out that there are plenty of jobs but the majority of the workforce couldn’t pass a drug test.
    Final note: Glad I went back, Cheers Dan

    1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Interesting observations, Dan. Your last sentence is truly depressing, though. While Vance did a nice job describing the social ills that are holding back his peers, as Stan pointed out at our dinner the article that Doug circulated beforehand from the New Yorker gave us a richer, deeper picture of just how troubled so many small towns are now with Rx and other drugs. (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/06/05/the-addicts-next-door)

  3. Viewed from the outside, and with out having read the various tomes Andrew has compared to Hillbilly Elegy, I read the book with interest. As noted, it did not seem to be particularly well written, but it did add to the understanding of the problems many of our fellow citizens are facing. In this case, many of those problems are inherent in the old school ways of the culture, and the leaning toward family ties versus searching for a better way to live. In the end, education is the way out for many, but our society, though giving education lip service, does not fully support our schools and teachers. If a person cannot see a future they are more likely to face the problems of drugs, early marriage/divorce/broken families, and lack of ambition that effect so much of the declining industrial states.