A Transatlantic Elegy For An American Hillbilly

This book will stay with me for a long time but not for the reasons many other love (or loathe) it. Haunting and mesmerising.

Having read the book I am now not sure whether this is a book review or an online self-understanding counselling session. You see, to me at least, this is not just a book. It’s not even a poem of bereavement. It is so much more than that. It is a dark lament. A lament of such heartfelt profundity (and, at times, profanity) that it often left me travelling back through the mists of time to dig around in memories I thought had died with boy I used to be.

 

I got a tweet from an American friend a while back. “Give this book a try”, he wrote. “It’s a New York Times bestseller and everybody is going on about it. I’d be curious to hear you compare and contrast the author’s experience in poor white America with what it’s like in Scotland’s schemes”. He’s a good brother, so I ordered the book.

Hillbilly Elegy (by J. D. Vance) arrived on my doorstep a few weeks later. I had to Google the word elegy. Apparently, it is derived from the Greek work “elegus”, which means a song of bereavement. It can be accompanied by a flute as well (if you care for that sort of thing).

I’d never heard of it. And why would I? I live in Niddrie, a small scheme on the East side of Edinburgh in Scotland. A million miles away from New York and further still, socially and culturally, from the Appalachian background of the author’s heritage. A book with at least one word in the title I had to Google and a people I have no real connection to didn’t sound much like great reading. On top of this, a visiting friend, himself a copious reader and reviewer saw the book and said he felt indifferent about it. So, it got left on the kitchen table, and I resigned myself to getting round to it if I ever got a couple of spare hours.

Having read the book I am now not sure whether this is a book review or an online self-understanding counselling session. You see, to me at least, this is not just a book. It’s not even a poem of bereavement. It is so much more than that. It is a dark lament. A lament of such heartfelt profundity (and, at times, profanity) that it often left me travelling back through the mists of time to dig around in memories I thought had died with boy I used to be.

Hillbilly Elegy is the story of JD Vance, a self-confessed Scots-Irish hillbilly who, he reminds us, are blessed with

“Many good traits – an intense sense of loyalty, a fierce dedication to family and country – but also many bad ones. We do not like outsiders or people who are different from us, whether the difference lies in how they look, how they act, or, most important, how they talk.” (p3)

From the off I felt a deep connection to the book which only intensified as his story progressed. Time and again I would read throwaway lines that resonated at every level. He talks of his early working days with,

“Too many young men immune to hard work”. Coupled with, “A feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself.” (p7)

This could be written about most housing schemes and council estates in the UK. The issue in our land isn’t that there are not enough jobs. There are plenty. Many, (not all) young men around us just do not want them. They would rather sign on the dole and collect their social security cheque than subject themselves to any work that they consider beneath them. Many who do find work tend to last no more than a few weeks (maybe months) and leave, fed up of being ‘bossed around’ (their words) and telling themselves that it’s not their fault and their boss ‘has it in for them’. Victim mentality in the schemes is so thick you could stand a spoon in it. All this and we haven’t even entered chapter 1!

Much of the book centres around his relationship with his grandparents (Mamaw and Papaw), his mum, his sister and some aunties and uncles. Largely, though, it is Mamaw that takes centre stage in this book. Mamaw was the matriarch of the family. The glue. The centre point. The anchor. There is a Mamaw in nearly every household in the schemes and council estates of the UK. Or at least there was a generation ago. Mamaw, like many Scottish nan’s from the schemes, “loathed disloyalty, and there was no greater disloyalty than class betrayal.” (p15) In almost every page of the early chapters I found myself wincing as it mirrored the culture of our poorest communities here in the UK. Hearing him describe how drugs entered into his community, quickly followed by an epidemic of prescription drug addiction made me sigh in empathy. I only have to walk a few hundred yards from my home to the local pharmacy every morning to see the queues of, quite literally, hundreds of pasty, anaemic and toothless looking ghosts, all going for their morning prescriptions of Methadone, Valium, anti-psychotics and all sorts of other tranquillisers they use to anaesthetise themselves toward their slow walk to the grave. The ‘real walking dead’ is what we call them round here.

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