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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Greg Sheri­dan

Bi­ogra­phies or nov­els, which do you pre­fer? Bi­ogra­phies have the ad­van­tage that they are deal­ing with real people and with events that ac­tu­ally hap­pened. Their dis­ad­van­tage is they can­not pen­e­trate the sub­jec­tive realms where nov­els do their best work, the most in­ti­mate truths of the hu­man heart.

The best sub­jects are those who kept ex­ten­sive diaries and wrote a lot of let­ters. A form I’ve grown to like more and more is the mem­oir. The best take you as deeply into the per­son­al­ity of an­other hu­man as a novel, with the ben­e­fit of re­flect­ing re­al­ity. I still con­sider Is­raeli nov­el­ist Amoz Oz’s A Tale of Love and Dark­ness per­haps the finest book of any kind I’ve en­coun­tered. The best Aus­tralian mem­oir I’ve read is Richard Glover’s Flesh Wounds.

Here’s a new one for the list. JD Vance’s Hill­billy El­egy is some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary. It is a per­sonal mem­oir of quite bril­liant com­po­si­tion that is shaped to a po­lit­i­cal pur­pose, lib­er­ally spiced with jokes, and yet wrench­ingly sin­cere and deal­ing with the hard­est truths of life — parental be­trayal, drug ad­dic­tion, do­mes­tic abuse, en­dur­ing fam­ily love, cul­tural de­spair and, amid it all, hope and re­demp­tion.

The mem­oir form of­fers great flex­i­bil­ity with­out loss of co­her­ence. Al­most all mem­oirists tell you a story in an ac­ces­si­ble fash­ion. Many drama­tise events, write whole episodes as though they were nov­els. Vance doesn’t do that. He em­ploys no au­tho­rial voice tricks, no time sus­pen­sions, no overtly art­ful film-style vis­ual set­tings — which Barack Obama did to great ef­fect in Dreams of My Fa­ther — and yet his tale is com­pelling. He tells of the ter­ri­ble cul­tural dis­lo­ca­tion of his clan, the hill­bil­lies of the Amer­i­can south. But this is not An­gela’s Ashes. And he doesn’t hate his rel­a­tives — he loves them. He loves the good in them, the pa­tri­o­tism, the re­li­gion, the loy­alty to their clan.

Their cul­tural de­cline is partly eco­nomic. They moved to the city for low-skill but reg­u­lar jobs, they got the jobs and a taste of the Amer­i­can dream, and then the jobs dis­ap­peared and they were stranded far from home. And the broad cul­ture moved away from them. They had no he­roes. Cyn­i­cism, de­spair and drugs took over. But Vance sur­vives. In the end he goes to Yale and be­comes hugely suc­cess­ful. Four things saved him — his grand­par­ents, his sis­ter, re­li­gion and fi­nally the Marine Corps.

The real hero of the book is his grand­mother, who put up with her own share of abuse from her hus­band, who later re­pented and be­came a pretty good grand­fa­ther in his way. Vance’s cussing, foul-mouthed, Bi­ble-tot­ing, im­pov­er­ished, iron-willed, gen­er­ous, tough-as-nails grand­mother of­fered him refuge from his mother’s wild, de­press­ing and crush­ing drug ad­dic­tion and her end­less se­ries of male part­ners, some of them OK enough, some of them creeps.

Vance’s child­hood was filled with vi­o­lence, dis­or­der and dis­rup­tion. Fi­nally he moved in per­ma­nently with his grand­mother who, though on good terms with her hus­band, lived alone. Vance re­calls: “There were three rules in her house: Get good grades, get a job and get off your ass and help me.”

One strength of this book is the way it ef­fort­lessly threads pub­lic pol­icy into the story. Vance has read deeply about the predica­ment of his hill­billy com­mu­nity and about the ef­fect of fam­ily dis­or­der on kids and much else. He is taken with the con­cept of the “re­silient child”. Even if there is one good adult to help a kid through, the kid has a real chance of mak­ing it OK. With­out ide­al­is­ing the past, Vance de­scribes the gen­er­a­tional changes in two types of work­ing-class cul­ture: “My grand­par­ents em­bod­ied one type: old fash­ioned, qui­etly faith­ful, self-re­liant, hard­work­ing. My mother, and in­creas­ingly the en­tire neigh­bour­hood, em­bod­ied an­other: con­sumerist, iso­lated, an­gry, dis­trust­ful.”

An­other el­e­ment of ge­nius is how much hu­mour he man­ages, much of it self-dep­re­cat­ing, though for most of the book Vance is a kid af­flicted by some very dis­turbed adults. And fi­nally, as with any re­ally good work of art, there is the un­der­ly­ing sense of con­so­la­tion and hope, in­deed of for­give­ness. Hill­billy El­egy has been rightly noted for its po­lit­i­cal in­sights. I rec­om­mend it to you en­tirely as a work of lit­er­a­ture.

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