Vance’s memoir really is not, despite its marketing, a tale of economic privation among the Kentucky Scots-Irish exodus. It is closer to the opposite: His Kentucky-exile grandparents are secure and prosperous in spite of their own humble origins and a long period of alcohol-fueled domestic strife; they own a nice, four-bedroom home and drive new high-end cars—convertibles, even. Growing up in a small town in Ohio in the 1990s, Vance lived in a household with an annual income exceeding $100,000, or the equivalent of about $175,000 a year in today’s dollars. . . .His family was indeed miserable, but theirs wasn’t the misery of poverty and privation. It was the misery of people determined to be miserable at any price. The great American bounty was wheeled out for their enjoyment like room service at the Ritz Carlton, and they decided they preferred Wendy’s and Night Train and OxyContin and desultory sex with strangers from bars.
Nothing happened to them—they happened. . . .
His mother is a nurse, a much-married woman who grows bored with men who are kind and well-employed, who takes up drinking and carousing relatively late in life and engages in theatrical public meltdowns, including purported suicide attempts. . . . Vance’s grandmother (and surrogate mother), whom he calls Mamaw, is one of those horrifying redneck women who thinks of herself as a matriarch, threatens to shoot people all the time, and apologizes for being a “crazy bitch” even while she obviously takes pleasure and a sense of personal identity from being one. . . .
[T]he chaos of his upbringing—at one point, he’s dividing his time between three different households, and most of the members of his tight clan have different surnames—is real and it is awful, but it has little to do with economic opportunity per se. His family doesn’t live in the poor section of town, and they have money to provide him with all sorts of desirable things, including golf lessons. He gets a nice set of secondhand MacGregors—being a poor hillbilly ain’t what it used to be. . . .
Vance’s mother loses her high-paying nurse’s job in a . . . dramatic fashion, raiding the hospital pharmacy, getting high as a Georgia pine on prescription painkillers, and then Rollerblading through the emergency room. . . . Between the legal fees, the rehab facilities, the never-to-be-repaid “loans” during spells of self-inflicted unemployment, Vance’s mother bleeds her parents white over the course of her adult life. . . .
Vance had the good sense to delay college and enlist in the Marine Corps instead. And the Marine Corps is one of the few remaining American institutions that delivers more or less exactly as advertised. Vance entered the boot camp pudgy, disorganized, immature, and lacking in confidence. He left it harder, wiser, and more capable. His account of his time in the Marines is in fact one of the most interesting sections of the book, and the one that points both to the promise and shortcomings of public-policy interventions to counter the dysfunction of the white underclass. As Vance puts it, the Marines take in new recruits under an assumption of maximum ignorance, i.e., that they do not know the basics of anything, from personal hygiene to keeping a schedule. The Marine Corps interferes in Vance’s life in intensely invasive and personal ways: When he decides he needs to buy a car, an older Marine is dispatched to make sure he doesn’t buy something stupid and stops him from signing a high-interest financing contract with the dealer, steering him instead toward a much better deal available through the Marines’ credit union. . . .
J.D. Vance may have set out to write something like Angela’s Ashes, exploring the interaction between addiction, poverty, pride, and clannishness, but what he has delivered is a personal supplement to Albion’s Seed, updating us on the decline of the Scots-Irish communities whose submersion in atavistic hinterland folkways keeps them in poverty even when they are not, strictly speaking, poor. It is an engaging and at times fascinating read, and one that contains, despite Vance’s best efforts, very little to support a case for hope.
Another piece looking at geographic links between firearm suicides, opioid abuse and Republican political support's growth in recent years also offers an interesting perspective.