“…What I did know is that there was something very different about us – all of us who lived in the Jacksons and all those ‘hollers’ of middle America.
Other people didn’t live the way we did. They did not wake to the scream of neighbors fighting. They lived far away in beautiful little home with manicured lawns where policemen came around with smiles and waves, never with the intention of loading someone’s mom or dad in the back of their cruiser.
Whenever Mom got arrested, neighborhood porches and front yards filled with spectators. There was no embarrassment in waving to them as the cops carted your mother off.
It was a common scene in the neighborhood. There were levels – mild screaming attracted a smattering of cracked shutters or peeks through the shades. If things escalated a bit further, bedrooms would light up as folks awoke to see what the commotion was all about. And if things got really out of hand, throngs would be there to watch the cops drag away someone’s drunk dad or unhinged mom to the lock-up…..”
It is now two years that the world has woken up to a hitherto hidden entity known as “The Trump Base”. It has come to define a very specific kind of people – those who have Pillsbury cinnamon rolls for breakfast, Taco Bell for lunch and McDonalds for dinner. They rarely cook, even though it’s cheaper and healthier. They just don’t want to take the trouble. They don’t go to work because it requires them to wake up at 5am in the morning. And when they do, they get fired for taking 30-minute bathroom breaks, five times a shift and find it much easier to simply live on the dole. The only exercise they get is the games they played as children, amidst junk-filled backyards. If they see someone jogging outside on the street, they are probably at a military base or in college some place far far away.
They are essentially unhappy, pessimistic folks who are convinced that it’s useless working hard because the ‘system’ is rigged against them. They are scared, confused and angry that the government is not doing enough to help them. They call themselves evangelicals but studies show that church attendance is the lowest among their kind.
They blame large businesses for closing shop and moving overseas, even when they would have done the same thing if they were running those companies with employees that behaved the way they do.
The author speaks of growing up as one of them – dirt poor. He pillories his own people for being a bunch of uneducated, angry, pessimistic and lazy losers. Talking about rural and middle America this way is like breaking a social taboo and that takes courage.
The author spent most of the first 20 years of his life deeply embedded in this cesspool. He worked in their farms. He dated their calico-skirted daughters. He camped, hunted and fished with their sons. He listened to their political rants at the local diner and truck stop. He winced at their racist, bigoted jokes and epithets that were said more out of ignorance than animosity. He watched the town he grew up in turn from a robust economy with well-kept properties into a ghost town with shuttered businesses, dilapidated homes and a run-down infrastructure.
Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how one hillbilly manages to break out and cross over to the other side – the one that is filled with enlightenment, financial stability and a harmonious home. In excruciating detail, he records growing up, with a heroin addict mother with revolving door boyfriends, his father having given him up for adoption.
And then fate steps in. It shows him a way to finance his personal development – he joins the US Marines and then uses the GI Bill to subsidize his university education. It gets him to a scholarship at Yale Law School and a future filled with unbridled prosperity. But perhaps the real elegy is in the way fate introduces him to a woman who is far from a hillbilly’s idea of what a life partner should be – an enlightened classmate named Usha, born to first-generation Indian immigrants.
J.D.Vance and Usha Chillikuri on their wedding day (Image courtesy:Google Images)
In fact, fate takes charge of the author when he is just five. With a mom who does not know up from down most times, it places him in the care of loving grandparents who encourage higher education (even though they are hillbillies themselves).
There is considerable sensitivity with which the author describes in heartwarming detail his life growing up in the care of his “Mamaw and Papaw” (his grandparents who actually raised him). He credits them and not his own parents for making him what he is today. “Don’t listen to the losers. Always remember, you can be anything you want”, they relentlessly drilled into him. Unfortunately both of them were not alive to witness his eventual break-out and crossover – to “the other side”.
Strangely, in all of the 250 pages, the author seems to have no opinion on race. Perhaps not so strangely after all – not a long time back, he used to be a rural white Anglo-Saxon Christian. And rural white Anglo-Saxon Christians in America love to listen to their standard bearers (the Rush Limbaughs and the Sean Hannitys) blow their dog whistles – on how gays being allowed to marry are a threat. Blacks protesting the killing of their unarmed friends and family are a threat. Hispanics doing the cheap labor on their farms, taking away their jobs, are a threat. The black president was a threat. Muslims are a threat. The Chinese are a threat. Women wanting to have the choice to abort are a threat. The college-educated are a threat. Scientists are atheists and therefore a threat. Everyone who isn’t just like them has been sold to them as a threat and they’ve bought it hook, line and fucking sinker.
In deep-red America where he grew up, the white Christian god is king, figuratively and literally. Religious fundamentalism has shaped most of their belief systems. And systems built on a fundamentalist framework are not conducive to introspection, questioning, learning, or change.
The author appears not to have noticed that most rural Christian white Americans are racists who believe that their white god made them in his image and everyone else is a less-than-perfect version, flawed and cursed. They are no longer the white hood-wearing, cross-burning, lynching kind of course. They are people who deep down in their hearts truly believe that they are superior because they are white. That non-whites are the color they are because of the sins of their past generations and blacks don’t have dark skin because of evolution; they have dark skin because they are cursed. God cursed them for a reason. If god cursed them, treating them as equals would be going against god’s will, wouldn’t it?
By the size of their rallies, you might get the impression that they are a minority, but the fact is that most of them like to stay home and watch and cheer on. And vote. And it doesn’t mean that they want a Nazi-style Final Solution. They just want the blacks, Hispanics and Asiatics to live on the ‘other side of the tracks’ in every manner possible.
Unfortunately, even though racism plays a huge part in the plight of today’s Hillbilly White America, the author fails to acknowledge it in any significant way. However, his marriage to a non-white Indian and her acceptance among his hillbilly family is perhaps a blazing example of the positive turn that bigotry can take when things get personal. (Remember Dick Cheney’s change of heart when he found out that his own daughter was a lesbian?)
Hillbilly Elegy has been accepted and devoured appreciatively by not only the white coastal elite but also many of the author’s hillbilly friends back home in the ‘holler’. (At least the ones that can read).
I understand that the acclaimed producer-director, Ron Howard, has procured the movie rights. I wonder who will play Usha – Priyanka Chopra?