The Commercial Appeal

Author called ‘Trump whisperer’

‘Hillbilly Elegy’ exploded into national conversati­on


NEW YORK - Here is J.D. Vance, a long way from Middletown, Ohio, arriving at the gilded Fifth Avenue temple of the University Club, a massive pile of excess born of robber-baron lucre and standing in the shadow of its glass-andsteel successor, Trump Tower.

Vance has no tie. The club requires that he wear one. He is offered a scrawny, wrinkled navy number, possibly a Brooks Brothers reject, that looks as though it has collected lint through several society seasons.

That Vance is the night's honored speaker, at a benefit for socio-economical­ly disadvanta­ged students, makes no difference. Rules are rules.

None of this is lost on Vance, 32, a proud product of Appalachia, the Marines, Ohio State and Yale Law. The son of a mother who married five times and took to hard drugs. Whose father left the home by the time his son had started walking and gave him up for adoption when J.D. (for James David) was 6, to be raised by his mother, his maternal grandparen­ts and a parade of stepfather­s. (She's clean now, and he's back in Vance's life.)

Seven months ago, Vance's "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis" exploded into the national political conversati­on. Although Donald Trump gets not a solitary mention in the book, the novice author's timing proved exquisite.

The memoir describes the plight of poor, angry white Americans in Appalachia and the Rust Belt, a tinderbox of resentment that ignited national politics. His family roots on his mother's side run deep in Kentucky, specifical­ly Breathitt County, before his grandparen­ts settled

in Middletown. "Hillbilly Elegy" crested the bestseller list, tumbled slightly, only to spike again after the presidenti­al election. Late last week, it was the No. 2 bestseller on Amazon behind George Orwell's dystopian classic, "1984."

The book, with an initial printing of 10,000, has sold half a million copies in hardcover and 280,000 digital and audio editions, according to the publisher, HarperColl­ins.

CNN hired Vance as a paid commentato­r. He has become a regular contributo­r to the New York Times opinion page. He's in high demand as a lecturer, being offered what he deems "a prepostero­us amount of money." His schedule is such a circus that he recently had to hire a personal assistant.

The Trump whisperer, they call him. Also, J.D., the Rust Belt anger translator.

A weird place to be, he concedes. "It's an indictment of our media culture that a group that includes tens of millions of people is effectivel­y represente­d by one guy," he says. "I feel sort of uncomforta­ble being the guy." But for now, he is. Vance and his family — his mother and sister and whichever man his mother was with at the moment — moved constantly, chaos their credo, until, as a teenager, he'd had enough. In high school, he chose to live with his beloved maternal grandmothe­r, Mamaw, a profanitys­pewing hill woman — "a violent nondrunk," he calls her — who never spent much time in high school but was armed with an unwavering belief that her grandson could do anything.

Vance understand­s the rarity of his journey, that if the Ivy League didn't festoon his résumé, he probably wouldn't be addressing the evening's benefit, surrounded by degree-laden liberals in America's pulsing blue border.

Several guests at the event, clutching copies of "Hillbilly" to their chests, beseech Vance, believing that he's a fellow progressiv­e: "What are we going to do? We Democrats need to figure this out."

Vance is a conservati­ve Republican. He's a contributo­r to the National Review and has interned and clerked for Republican­s.

"It's very interestin­g, right?" he says later of the political presumptio­n. "It seems to me an indictment of the Republican Party that if you talk about issues of poverty and upward mobility, people assume you're a Democrat."

"This country is segregated by race, geography and income in a way that it hasn't been in a very, very long time," he says. "The person in New York City is showing too little empathy for the Trump voter. The Trump voter is showing too little empathy for the person who's very worried about the refugee ban. They're not spending enough time with each other to have a meaningful conversati­on."

For the record, Vance is not a Trump fan. Trump, he says, "ran an angry, very adversaria­l campaign that in tone matched the frustratio­ns of the people I wrote about. He certainly ran a pretty cynical campaign, and got a lot of votes from people who are feeling cynical about the future." Vance voted for independen­t candidate Evan McMullin.

On this night, a long way from his family's origins in a Kentucky holler, Vance will feast on a $46 steak, drain a $19 martini, slumber in a $700 hotel room and shake his head at the absurdity of it all.

For all his confidence — he raced through college in less than two years, graduating summa cum laude — "he's always retained this boyish charm," says his childhood friend Nate Ellis. "He's never really lost it. He's unapologet­ically J.D."

Vance tells the joke — naturally, in a TED Talk, and again in his University Club address — of being offered chardonnay or sauvignon blanc at an event, not knowing the difference, and requesting the former because it was easier to pronounce. Later in the evening, he will ask whether he's pronouncin­g "canard" correctly and whether bearnaise sauce is "just fancy mayonnaise." (Yes, and yes.)

Vance lives in San Francisco — the antithesis of his home town of Middletown — where he works as a principal in an investment group co-founded by Peter Thiel, one of the few Silicon Valley poobahs to support Trump.

But he and his wife, Usha, are moving to Columbus, most likely by the end of the month.

There, he plans to run a small nonprofit organizati­on "to work on battling the opioid crisis and bringing durable capital to the region," he says. "I never wanted to be a public intellectu­al or a talking head. I actually care about solving some of these things."

"It's been a crazy year," says Usha Vance, the daughter of Indian immigrants and an associate in a San Francisco law firm. "I think the process of writing for him was a process of discovery, where he was realizing things about himself."

They met in law school. He declared his love for her after their first date. He also made it clear that Ohio would be in their future.

"I've basically been homesick since I was 18 years old," when he joined the Marines, says Vance. "Usha knew that this kid is obsessed with Ohio, and he will not consider his life happy and fulfilled unless he goes back home."

Their life is about to become crazier. They're expecting their first child, a boy, due June 1. "Life is sort of complicate­d. A couple of months after that, [Usha's] going to start a new job, a temporary one as these things are," says Vance somewhat awkwardly.

Doing what? "Uh, a clerkship with the chief justice."

Not of Ohio, mind you, but with Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts Jr. Usha's mother, a biology professor in California, plans to take time off and help with the baby.

"Hillbilly Elegy" began as a law school writing project on the thwarted economic mobility of Rust Belt residents. Vance's contracts professor and "authorial godmother," Amy Chua, pushed him to make the argument part of a memoir. In 2011, she had experience­d success writing about her life and pronounced parenting views in "The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother."

Vance recalls telling Chua, "Nobody wants to read about me." Also, "I didn't expect the book to be as politicall­y relevant."

Chua recalls: "We just really clicked. I saw something special in him. When I was in the middle of the firestorm about 'Tiger Mother,' J.D. wrote me that 'you sound just like my grandmothe­r,' and he started to pour out his heart."

"He's such a true person," she adds. "You can tell an honest voice."

Vance believed early on that Trump would be the Republican nominee. He didn't think that he'd be elected president, though. When he was, Vance became the moment's prized talking head.

 ?? AL BEHRMAN, AP ?? This March 13, 2008, shows AK Steel's Middletown Works plant in Middletown, Ohio. Author J.D. Vance's book "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis" provides a vivid tour of the stark world he grew up in, set mainly in the...
AL BEHRMAN, AP This March 13, 2008, shows AK Steel's Middletown Works plant in Middletown, Ohio. Author J.D. Vance's book "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis" provides a vivid tour of the stark world he grew up in, set mainly in the...
 ??  ?? Author J.D. Vanceis coming back to his home state to head a nonprofit aimed at helping some of the social issues he wrote about.
Author J.D. Vanceis coming back to his home state to head a nonprofit aimed at helping some of the social issues he wrote about.

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