Sunday, September 04, 2016

"Hillbilly Elegy"

This first book by J.D. Vance was read here a few weeks ago, immediately after it was published. Usually that means something will be posted soon after.  This book was different.  There were many aspects to it that did not fit into an easy description, at least that was the case here.  By now it has been widely reviewed and has attracted significant attention.

In what ways was this book attractive and identified with here?  First, while never seeing myself as growing up in a hillbilly culture, growing up at 500 feet above sea level on the fall line in Virginia and far from the mountains where "hillbillies" lived, based on what was read here I certainly must been growing up in a "hillbilly" town.  At one point it is mentioned that in Middletown, Ohio, where much of the book takes place, more than 20% of those entering high school as a freshman would never graduate. That number was over 40% in our hometown when I was growing up.  It was a highly divided mill town.

Second is Middletown itself, which is in a part of Ohio that I covered as a corporate banker in the mid-80's, where a major client was Armco Steel.  The deprivation described about Middletown now is not something that was obvious then.  Armco, where some of the Appalachian transplants described in the book worked, seemed to be the ultimate patriarchal company.  They maintained an expansive recreation area with two immaculately maintained first class golf courses for all employees and much more. During my coverage time, Armco was working, we bankers were working, to help it avoid bankruptcy.  Almost three months of meetings with all banks and lawyers in downtown New York*, plus multiple trips to Middletown, made what was read here in this book of great interest.

Third, the book led to reflections about my great grandfather in Lebanon, Virginia, someone I never knew, who was the son of an Irish immigrant and by the early 1900's was a lawyer for some of the largest coal companies in Virginia and Kentucky.  My grandmother told me about him taking her to stay at the Waldorf Astoria when she was 12, as he needed to be there on a business trip.

Fourth, the many drives through Appalachia that were made during the time that I lived in Louisville and going to the hometown in Virginia, were always opportunities to see Appalachia, stop to get gas or a barely edible sandwich, and talk with whomever.  Few people took the opportunity.

Fifth is the fact that this book is all about a mostly dysfunctional culture, and a very resilient one, rather than governance or politics, although that is not avoided.

This has obviously not been a review of this book in any form.  It is random reactions to an interesting book.  It caused some personal reflection on my part,  related to some things that I know and like to ignore.  With what little a reader can gain from what has been written here, it is suggested that this book be read now, not because it tells any type of full story but because it does a great job of telling a piece of one, that is if one reads it as a reflection on what is happening in this unusual election season.  I did.  J.D. Vance tells his family story in what seems to an honest and straightforward way, and it has much broader implications.  At 31, he is already an accomplished and experienced individual, war veteran, writer, and practicing attorney.  What's next?

*I remember many things about those intense all day and late night meetings as seven banks and Armco struggled to agree on anything that would lead to a solution.  One winter night a major blizzard arrived, and I was wondering how could make it back to my midtown studio.  Would there be any cabs, would I need to walk, or would the subways be working if the effort was made to walk to one and from one.  With that on my mind, three J.P. Morgan bankers, with a short walk to their bank and car services ahead, were talking about whether their lanes in Connecticut would be blocked. They were my age or younger.


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