I just finished Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. I can't recommend this book strongly enough. I loved it in so many ways.
J.D. grew up in a single-parent (often zero parent) lower-income home in Middletown, Ohio and also spent much of his youth in his family's cultural home of Jackson, Kentucky. His youth was surrounded by family members who struggled with substance abuse, violence, teenage pregnancy, and lack of social mobility.
Yet J.D. ended up a Marine (with a tour in Iraq), graduated from Ohio State University in under two years, and then graduated from Yale Law School. He is now a VC at Mithril Capital, which was co-founded by Peter Thiel.
The book is a memoir about his improbable journey from his working-class, "hillbilly" roots in Appalachia to the elite corridors of one of the top law schools in the U.S., and then the world of venture capital. It is a Sliding Doors tale of a couple of life events that lifted Vance and propelled him to cross socioeconomic lines that are increasingly harder to pierce in the United States. In each case, J.D. could have made slightly different choices and had a greatly different life outcome. I suspect many of our lives are more like that than we acknowledge, and making strong choices about direction in key moments is often what defines us.
What I loved most about the book is J.D.'s raw honesty about his childhood. Nothing is sugar-coated: He describes his grandparents physically harassing and threatening a store-owner for asking their son not to play with the toys, he talks openly about his grandmother's love of guns and the fear she instilled in others, and he doesn't hide the foul language that was second nature to her. He talks heartbreakingly about his mother, who fought substance abuse her entire adult life, tried to commit suicide, and vacillated between love for her kids and jealousy of them. And he talks about his absentee father.
As a graduate of Yale Law School he could have whitewashed this childhood and gone on to silent greatness. He could have lived Secrets and Lies (one of my all-time favorite films) in which working-class British folks (directed by the venerable Mike Leigh) bury their past in order to tolerate the present
Yet just as in the film, when the secret becomes exposed it's liberating, and the suppression in many way limits your freedom, your openness, and thus your happiness. I hope J.D. now feels more comfortable in his skin with the knowledge that exposing his childhood only makes the rest of us respect him even more.
But the beauty of the book is precisely how human the characters are, how sincerely the love is felt -- regardless of familial flaws. Eighty percent of Hillbilly Elegy is the memoir about his childhood and exposure to life in poor, working-class towns bereft of their former manufacturing employers. The final 20 percent offers some of Vance's reflections on failed policies that, while well-intentioned, end up illustrating the law of unintended consequences.
Welfare recipients who find ways to cash food stamps for dozens of packs of soda, which they sell for cash to buy liquor and cigarettes. Section 8 housing vouchers designed to help assist families with housing but which further bind lower-income neighbors while avoiding the NIMBY ("not-in-my-backyard") integration with the middle-classes. Vance and his working brethren clearly resented their small wages for hard work but says many chose instead to have welfare handouts that killed their working spirit. He profiles his Section 8 next door neighbor who abuses drugs while her kids go unfed and unsupervised.
But Vance escaped it all. This is where Sliding Doors creeps in. His mom graduates high school as a salutatorian destined for college but falls pregnant as a teenager and begins a life of single-motherhood and squandered opportunities. J.D. was also clearly intelligent but hadn't fully applied himself in high school. He could have descended into drugs and despair but a few key arcs and influences in his life lifted him onto a different track.
And J.D. as a child, a Marine, and a college student discovering the basic rules of life (wear a suit to a job interview, sparkling water is simply carbonated water) is so lovable that you find yourself wanting to hug this young boy and point him to the right path. He clearly found it by himself.
The first arc is when his grandmother (Mamaw) agrees to take him under her wings and let him move in full-time -- escaping a substance-abusing mother who didn't inspire Vance to better himself. Mamaw isn't educated and in fact scorns "elites" but knows that if J.D. is to get ahead he must do well in school and go to college. What Mamaw lacks in social graces she makes up in life-lessons, discipline, and an unwillingness to allow J.D. to feel sorry for himself.
The second arc is when J.D.'s cousin inspires him to join the Marines immediately after 9/11. In the Marines, he learns what many privileged families in the U.S. grow up with: physical fitness, nutrition, financial management, negotiations, and overall leadership. By going to the Marines for four years prior to Ohio State he is able to enter university with a sense of purpose rather than seeing it as an escape and a chance to party.
The third arc comes in an odd place. Vance had decided that he wasn't going to apply to the elite law schools -- he wasn't of that ilk -- and he figured a regional law school was good enough. He was in Washington, D.C. before applying and he saw a regional law school graduate who was bussing tables because that was the only work she could find. Because of this encounter he decided that it was worth the effort to try and reach one of the top programs.
J.D. got into Yale Law School and in so doing was cast amongst elite peers and people of all backgrounds and norms. He feared that he wouldn't live up to their intellectual height and yet soon found that he truly was a peer and his life's course had been permanently altered as society now accepted him as an elite member of the professional class. It is a huge, ironic twist for a boy coming from a region that seems to despise such elites.
The fourth arc is never stated but I can infer what it must have been. A law professor at Yale encouraged J.D. to explore his theses about the societal norms and values of white, working-class people from Appalachia and why America was leaving them behind. In pursuing his insights in the form of a book, J.D. was propelled again atop even his peer group of elites and into the fame of a political theorist during the most contentious political election of any of our lives. He doesn't ever seem to embrace Donald Trump as a potential president yet he cuts the clutter to offer below-surface explanations for why his people so overwhelmingly support Trump and disdain the leadership of both parties.
It is this final arc, I suspect (it is never said), that led Peter Thiel to discover J.D. and complete his journey from lawyer to entrepreneur to venture capitalist--and this final leap is a very hard one to make, indeed. Perhaps I am simply inferring this final arc, but reading Hillbilly Elegy, I find myself impressed with Vance's journey, grit, achievements, and ability to elucidate life in a region I scarcely understand.
Appalachia has 25 million people, making it about the same size at the state of Texas. That's probably no surprise to anybody from the Midwest or South, but to a person like me, who grew up in California and has never lived in that region, I found it astounding.
And that is why this book is so important. It's not just a lovable story of a young man overcoming life's disadvantages, it also profiles the decay of a major region in our country which is being left further and further behind and becoming more disenfranchised and angry. This is Trump territory, and while it would be easy to dismiss it in simple tones, it would be wrong to do so.
What attracted me to the book was an interview I read with Vance in which he described how liberal whites went so far to ensure they never offended any people of color or people with different sexual orientations but were quick to pass judgment on people from flyover states. Looking down on the white working class seemed to be the only form of openly accepted prejudice amongst white elites. And in reading this description, I knew that he was right and thus I wanted to learn more.
While waiting for your copy of Hillbilly Elegy to arrive, you would be well served to read this blog post about today's growing gap of wealthy versus poor. It's the biggest chasm we've created as a society: perhaps bigger than gender, sexual orientation, or even color. It's a stark primer for the book you are about to read.
In another post coming soon I'll write about my own journey. I hope to convince J.D. that while I grew up with very liberal, Jewish parents (dad from South America) in California, and in a nuclear family without alcohol or violence, I experienced surprisingly similar parallels to many of J.D.'s societal views -- even if we may have drawn moderately different conclusions about the underlying solutions.