'Hillbilly Elegy' raises provocative questions

"Well, I was drunk the day my mama got out of prison / And I went to pick her up in the rain / But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck / She got runned over by a damned old train."

- David Allan Coe

Anybody who can sing the lyrics to what country bad boy David Allan Coe called "the perfect country and western song" probably won't find a whole lot in J.D. Vance's hotly debated, bestselling memoir "Hillbilly Elegy" that's real surprising.

Fans of Jeff Foxworthy's painfully funny "You Might Be a Redneck" comedy act will also find Vance's action-packed childhood familiar. Like this: "If your grandma poured gasoline on grandpa, and lit him on fire for coming home drunk ... you might be a redneck."

"If your momma brought home 12 'stepfathers' in 15 years ... "

These things actually happened. Early in life, Vance writes, "I recognized that though many of my peers lacked the traditional American family, mine was more non-traditional than most."

No kidding. That said, Erskine Caldwell's "Tobacco Road" covered much of the same territory in the 1930s, along with William Faulkner's "Snopes Trilogy," Larry Brown's "Joe," and a host of Southern novelists and memoirists too numerous to list. The inexhaustible Joyce Carol Oates has chronicled the stunted lives of Yankee hillbillies for decades.

None of which is to diminish Vance's achievement, nor to minimize his success in focusing affectionate, yet unsparing, attention on the ongoing plight of the poor white Appalachian emigrants he calls his people. American Conservative columnist Rod Dreher has written that "Hillbilly Elegy" "does for poor white people what Ta-Nehisi Coates's book ("Between the World and Me") did for poor black people: give them voice and presence in the public square."

Some even think Vance helps explain the election of Donald Trump, although his political message is distinctly mixed. Either way, "Hillbilly Elegy" is deservedly No. 2 on The New York Times nonfiction best-seller list.

Born in rural eastern Kentucky, Vance was mostly raised by his doting, albeit violent, grandparents in the decaying mill town of Middletown, Ohio - one of those Rust Belt communities that lured Southern country folk to factory jobs that have since moved away (often to nonunion Southern states like Arkansas). I kept thinking of Bobby Bare's homesick lament "Detroit City": "I think I'll take my foolish pride / and put it on a southbound freight and ride."

Vance took a less sentimental escape route: the U.S. Marines, Ohio State University, and Yale Law School. Today he lives in San Francisco with his Asian-American wife and works at a Silicon Valley investment firm. His memoir shows him to be the king of mixed feelings: proud and relieved to have escaped the drug- and booze-addicted turmoil of his youth, yet determined to evoke respect for the "loyalty, honor, toughness" and fierce patriotism of the hillbilly culture back home.

Like many cross-cultural migrants, Vance has a thin skin - seeing condescension everywhere he looks. Of course, nobody with a Southern accent needs to search hard in New Haven. Back in the day, my wife got patronized to her face in academic New England. After she visited her Arkansas parents, one haughty colleague asked if she was an anthropologist.

She kept a lot of it from me for fear I might do something crazy.

In the long run, it's best to laugh these things off. The world is full of fools. At 31, Vance isn't there yet. Even so, the portrait he draws of his people is frequently less than admiring. What they hate about President Obama, he writes, isn't his race as much as the perception that "Nothing about him bears any resemblance to the people I admired growing up: His accent - clean, perfect, neutral - is foreign; his credentials are so impressive that they're frightening."

As such, Obama's a standing rebuke to people like Vance's hometown friend who bragged that he quit his job "because he was sick of waking up early," but spends time bashing the "Obama economy" on Facebook. Hence too "birtherism," a mythological construct explaining away the unacceptable truth: Maybe a lot of your problems are your own fault.

Vance thinks that hillbilly clannishness and self-pitying pessimism are personally and politically crippling. "We can't trust the evening news. We can't trust our politicians. Our universities, the gateway to a better life, are rigged against us. We can't get jobs. You can't believe these things and participate meaningfully in society."

Exactly. Having spent the last decade living on a gravel road in a backwoods Arkansas county with even more cows than hillbillies, I can affirm that at their best, there are no finer neighbors.

That said, not getting wasted every day definitely helps. However, Vance's mother was an addict. "An important question for hillbillies like me," he writes, is "How much is Mom's life her own fault? Where does blame stop and sympathy begin?"

Good question.

Email Gene Lyons at

© 2017, Universal

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