Thursday, May 25, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

  It was 1900 hours on the Last Thursday of May, leading into Memorial Day weekend and the beginning of summer for all of us. At the meeting on Park Ave SW, a literary hillbilly walked in a few minutes late, smelling like a garbage can. His matted hair and dirty clothes evidenced a life on the streets, a truth he confirmed as soon as he opened his mouth. "My kids won't speak to me; no one will," he told us. "I scrounge together what money I can and spend it on novels. Tonight I couldn't find any money or any novels, so I came in here because it looked warm."
  Our mentor, Dr. Palmer, asked if he'd be willing to try giving up reading for more than one night, and the man answered with admirable candor: "I could say yes, but honestly, probably not. I'll probably be back at it tomorrow night." I never saw that man again. He didn't stay for dessert. But before he'd left, someone asked him where he was from. "Well, I've been in a book club in Hamilton for most of my life. But I was born down in eastern Kentucky, Owsley County."
   I could have told the man that he had been born no more than twenty miles from a public library. He could have read it for free.  Plus we learned that Ron Howard has acquired movie rights to the book.
  Seven one-time rednecks expressed variegated and amusing opinions:

Charlie:  I enjoyed this book.  I thought it was interesting, mainly as a personal memoir.  I was expecting some sociological/political boot, but this was not.  It was a survivor's story.  The time frame in which it was published made it a success.  If it had been published two years earlier, we never would have heard of J.D. Vance.  Not a great book, but a good memoir.  A-

Rob E:  I have a couple of comments relating.  Susie was brought up in Las Vegas, NM when the football coach recruited players form Appalachia.  Susie married one of them, and after Highlands, they worked for the war on poverty.  Went to Houston, but vetoed going to Newark in the 60's, so they came to Albuquerque instead.  They both landed jobs teaching in APS, but one of their friend football players went on to UC Davis and eventually got his PhD, became a world wide consultant on smart farming.  Talking to him, he said there was much animosity toward the book in Appalachia, as many felt it exaggerated their culture.  My father served in the Navy, and influenced my brother to attend USNA.  Later became a consultant to the Australian Navy.  Now my brother has become an East Coast elite, somewhat of a snob, considering the family as rubes from Oklahoma.  
   I read this book several months ago; I found it interesting and impressive, with excellent stories.  The circles that J.D. Vance moves in now - perhaps he wrote this book to explain his Life to them.  The real root of our societal problems is the destruction of the nuclear family.  I give the book a B.  The second time I read it, I didn't get as much out of it.  Works for a large audience (Rust Belt, Bible Belt).  

Ken:  A 20 hr ride from Middleton to Jackson?  In the 50s they still had decent roads, if not interstates.  The distance is 190 miles - no way it took 10 mph for that trip in the 50s; takes 3 hrs today.  I enjoyed this book, but I thought it was a bit repetitious.  Showed good humor at times (e.g., forcing the sister's colleague to eat her panties.)  I was somewhat disappointed overall:  B   Worth reading.

Dick J:  When this book came out, I read a book review in the NY Times and decided not to read it.  However, I heard more about it and read it.  I found that the book described my life.  I asked my wife to read it, and she devoured it.  She said as I left the house tonight that she is really anxious to hear what this Club thinks.  I found that I liked the first half more than the second half, but I don't know why.  A

Ron B:  I thought it was well written and easy to read.  Provided a slice of Americana, including the socio-poltical comments.  The plot process was very local and subtle.  It was in the A- to B+ range.  I'm going with an A- as it provided a good impression.

Mike B:  I am forming a Special Interest Group for my Genealogical Society on Writing and Publishing, and I think each of you six individuals should be writing your own story - each of them are interesting, and should prove of interest to your descendants and future researchers.  
I was under the disadvantage of wife Bonnie describing all the 'good' hillbilly parts for me before I read it.  I expected there to be more of that, but his tone was subdued and those parts were nuggets found throughout the first half.  In the second half, the tone changed strongly, and as Ken said, J.D. Vance became one of 'us.'  Interesting, loved the Marine Corps makeover and the look behind the scene of acceptance into Yale Law School.  A-

Bob S:  I liked the book, both halves.  I was actually more impacted by the second half - interesting to review his trying to come to terms with the culture in which he was raised, and the traumatic events of one's youth.  This is the kind of book in which everyone will see something of themselves.  It was presented like a lawyer presenting his case. It doesn't have the literary span of some of the books we have read.  A-

The book was exceedingly interesting and well-written, and is insightful - especially how his life was different from those around him.

... and from well outside the Appalachian culture:
  The surgery went better than expected.  I have been walking longer and longer distances every day with some pain but no numbness, which is what he said he could cure. The first week was terribly painful and I could not have done it without Allison and Mercy, but now I am better, by far, than before the operation. 
  However, not for health reasons but, surprise!, my son Rick is coming in from Austria on Wednesday night, and then we are going to the cabin on Saturday, so I will not be at the meeting. I guess he wants to see the old Man once more before he kicks off. 

As to the book…I hated it at first and did not want to bother finishing it. I had heard enough of Mamaw and Papaw by page thirty. But I forged onward and got more into it, and did finish it. I still am not sure I care that much about his trials and his problems and his family, but it was well written and somewhat introspective, if overly repetitive. I guess I tend more toward amusing fiction than I do toward social commentary.  Nevertheless, I give the book an A‐ on style, pure writing ability and thoughtfulness. 
    - Dick 
Sorry I won't be able to participate in what I'm sure will be a very interesting discussion on Thursday. I am near the mouth of the Elwha River along the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the Olympic Peninsula among a different set of hill people.

 I found Vance's Hillbilly Elegy fascinating. I learned a lot. Growing up in northeastern Ohio, where there was a large population of transplants from West Virginia and Kentucky (my uncle was one), I admit I viewed them as foreigners who did not fit in and probably should have stayed in the hills. Vance's story of his family gave me a better appreciation of how and why they migrated and what motivated them to "act" the way they did.

 Vance is a good writer and I enjoyed his straightforward style. I did lose his timeline occasionally; however, it did not distract from the way he developed his cast of characters and the roles they played in his life. A 
   - Jack F.
belated comments by our erstwhile Poet Laureate:
Hillbilly Elegy: Each of us is born in a hole. A few mount a gilded balloon and soar regally into the sky. Some cobble a ladder of sticks and stones, and hard-scrabble out to a noble career. And many keep digging into the deepening darkle. But, alas, most sit in their hole...whining, sniveling, and carping...waiting each month for the Eagle to fart, and each year for the gravedigger's gravitas. 
  -  KG