BOUND TO PLEASE / A cultural emigrant in modern America

The Japan News

By Atsuko Matsumoto / Japan News Staff WriterHillbilly Elegy

by J.D. Vance

Harper, 261pp

On the day of the inauguration ceremony of U.S. President Donald Trump, his supporters gathered in Washington. But there were many others who couldn’t afford the trip to the capital.

Published at the peak of the presidential campaign, “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” has since earned a reputation as a book “to help understand Trump’s win.” It seems undeniable that its timely release and topical words like “Trump” and “Rust Belt” helped push J.D. Vance’s memoir onto the best seller lists.

Now just 32 years old, Vance writes what it was like to grow up in a dysfunctional family in poor working-class towns where “I knew zero Ivy League graduates” and then pursue an education at The Ohio State University and Yale Law School.

With young Vance as a narrator, the first several chapters are reminiscent of “Angela’s Ashes,” a memoir by Irish-American writer Frank McCourt. Both are firsthand accounts of poor families in despair. Turning the pages of an infinitely tumultuous and forlorn home life, readers may start desperately hoping for something good to happen. Occasional mentions of a tight bond with his grandparents and trustworthy sister supply some hope.

The author’s mother, whom he describes “consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful,” plays a key role in a number of episodes — sometimes life-threatening. Each time, he survived and tried to trust her again. But he recalls, “Something inside me broke” after his drug-intoxicated mother begged the teenage Vance for clean urine so she could pass a test.

Facing a “revolving door of father figures,” the young Vance had to “learn to love, and then forget.” As violence, alcoholism, poverty and hatred come and go like changing seasons, readers may become immune to dramatic development. Even his mother’s drug abuse expanding to heroin is no surprise. What resonates is, “There is no group of Americans more pessimistic than working-class whites.”

Vance, finding “no single book, or expert, or field could fully explain the problems of hillbillies in modern America,” tried to do so himself. He says they tend to “blame problems on society or the government.” He often sees them, their mentality and their destructive behavior with bitter loathing.

But to him, some elites are also at fault. He was disgusted when a university classmate who, unlike Vance, had never been to Iraq “spouted off about the Iraq war.” He realized he was one of “the only people in the [law] school who’d ever had to clean up someone else’s mess.” Vance floats between the identities of “we” and “they,” struggling with growing inner conflict.

Will this book satisfy the appetite of those curious about Trump supporters? Probably not. It has definitely had an impact on society, but at the same time its popularity relentlessly highlights a pre-election America with scarce interest in the Rust Belt and those who live there.

“Hillbilly Elegy” is more about one person’s journey from one culture to another in modern America. Vance’s journey still continues. If he writes about how his true identity finally settles in a second memoir decades from now, it will be more intriguing. By that time, the word “Trump” will be merely a historical term.

Where to Read

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