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Hillbilly Elegy

JD Vance

(London Times)

JD Vance was born in poverty in Ohio's Rust Belt. His mother, a recovering heroin addict, married five times and bore at least seven children; Vance was finally removed from her care after she threatened to kill them both by crashing her car.

At the age of 11 he moved in with his grandmother, 'Mamaw', a Kentucky-born matriarch who had fallen pregnant at 13 and once poured petrol over her husband and set him on fire after he broke yet another promise to quit drinking. (Vance's aunt extinguished the flames.)

Almost nobody in his family finished high school. Violence was a way of life. Yet at 19 Vance joined the marines and four years he later took an undergraduate degree from Ohio State University before passing into Yale Law School. Today, at 32, he is a successful principal in a Silicon Valley investment firm. Plump, neat and gregarious, he might embody the American dream.

If only his story were more common these days. 'The likelihood that a poor kid can become wealthy - which is a decent approximator for the American dream - was robust until the 1970s,' Vance says. 'Then it fell off a cliff and has never recovered.'

That melancholy withdrawal helps to explain why Hillbilly Elegy, Vance's memoir, has so entranced the American public. 'When I was writing the book, I' say to my wife that my only hopes were that it didn't embarrass me and it wouldn't get canned,' he says.

He need not have worried: it swiftly became a New York Times bestseller, turning its author into a fixture on TV news channels and newspaper comment pages. Few voices in American public discourse have any subjective experience of working-class life. Most are at a loss to explain the appeal of Donald Trump. But Vance's book vividly articulates the despair and disillusionment of blue-collar America to educated readers.

'Conversations about class and inequality are ideologically driven in the US,' he says at home in San Francisco. 'The right thinks of the poor as morally flawed; the left only focuses on the structural inequalities that cohort faces. My book raises the possibility that both can be true.'

Talking to Vance it is hard to detect the hillbilly beneath the polish. Even for a Yale graduate he speaks with measured articulacy.

Donald Trump, for his many flaws, channels a sense that he thinks like ordinary people.

This, he says, is why Trump appeals to the American poor: 'For the past 25 years the Republican platform has been tax cuts and deregulation. Those policies have not addressed the social disintegration of the white working class. People see their factories closing, their kids dying of heroin overdoses as never before, jobs disappearing, divorce rates rising, families dissolving. Trump is the only candidate to have diagnosed these problems - even if he doesn't offer any solutions.'

What in Trump disgusts American elites is, believes Vance, precisely what enraptures his blue-collar supporters: 'Trump speaks off the cuff; he's offensive. But that's how working-class Americans talk about politics. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama never say anything wrong, they always sound scripted. Trump, for his many flaws, channels a sense that he thinks like ordinary people.'

Vance briefly considered a vote for 'the Donald'. But despite being a registered Republican he will vote for Clinton or a third-party candidate: 'I feel deep alarm at the prospect of his [Trump's] presidency. The US has never had a true democratic usurpation, but Trump incites the worst in all of us.'

Hillbilly Elegy has a conflicted fondness for 'redneck' life. It suggests unsentimentally that within deprivation there can be beauty and value - but admonishes the disadvantaged Scots-Irish of Appalachia for cheating the dole or not doing more to improve their lot.

'For elites, life is transactional,' says Vance. 'There is a weird attachment to prestige: how much money you have or where you went to school. My upbringing taught me the importance of group loyalty: to be kind to your friends and not to bad-mouth people. People will help those they care about almost to the death - and expect nothing in return.'

When he reached Yale in 2010 he says he felt like 'a member of an alien species'. At a law firm recruitment dinner, Vance ordered 'sparkling water' without knowing what that was and spat it out, complaining to the waitress that his drink had been tainted.

This book serves as a grim reality check: the typical concerns of the 1% will seem trivially absurd to anyone forced to ponder what it would be like to be unable to feed their children. Yet Vance says he was 20 before he began to realise that violence and aggression are not necessary to solve a dispute.

'It wasn't until I was dating the woman I would marry that I realised I had a problem. I didn't know how to disagree with someone without it turning into a huge argument. I've spent more than 10 years unlearning that.'

Gun-toting Mamaw, who threatened to shoot his mother - her own daughter - if she sought to regain custody of Vance, gave him extended lessons on street fighting technique.

His mother, careening from one relationship to the next, comes off badly in the book, but Vance is careful to point out that many of the problems she left him were not of her making. 'I hope readers will feel compassion for her,' he tells me.

'When I began the book I was angry with her, but writing it made me appreciate how hard her life was.'

Vance says he will always be 'culturally working class . . . Hillbillies are my people.'

He and his wife, an Indian-born lawyer, hope one day to have children. 'They'll have access to immense privilege and a level of comfort and security that was foreign to me as a kid,' says Vance.

'But I hope they'll still think of themselves as hillbillies.'

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