Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D.Vance (Harper Collins, New York, 2016) $27.99

“Hillbilly Elegy” achieved its undeserved fame during a time when the topic of White Rage was hot. Its jacket blurbs announce an “instant classic” and the arrival of an “original writer”, neither of which claims is remotely true. The book is dull as a diary; like a diary it is stuffed with clichés and banalities, even though the author maintains a stance of heartfelt involvement. He loves his Mamaw and Papaw and his half-sister and he got out of Kentucky and southern Ohio, making his way to San Francisco where he is now a “principal at a leading Silicon Valley investment firm.” Nobody should mistake the irony here—a Scots Irish boy on the run from crumbling factories, drug cultures and alcoholic failure, finding success with the very kinds of people who drove manufacturing away from our shores. Ha, ha. The author, having escaped his destiny, now wields his shallow political philosophy like a dagger (not a sword, much less a rapier). He believes in the myth of the American Dream and the myth of the Meritocracy both, and is a compassionate conservative. End of story. Just try harder and you’ll be OK.

Understanding the rage of this failed class is both important and overdue. Vance, however, lacks the background and self-consciousness to accomplish the task. For starters, writing a memoir is hard work: Vance should take a look at, say, something like “Darkness Visible” by William Styron, the work of Joan Didion, Susan Cheever, or the great memoir by Mikal Gilmore “Shot in the Heart”. Now, there’s a dramatic memoir.

Secondly, there are many good books out there to consult about white rage, finance capitalism’s assault on American manufacturing, and the myth of the Meritocracy. For starters, Vance might read “Age of Anger” by Pankaj Mishra, or polemics like “Listen, Liberal” by Thomas Frank or “Supercapitalism” by Robert Reich.

Finally, outstanding work has been done on the “honor cultures” of Scots-Irish mountain people. These days, the memes that supported such a culture in the hills of the Appalachians are most likely failing memes. A partial bibliography of such books includes:

Night Comes to the Cumberlands by Harry Canchiull

Days of Darkness by John Pierce

Albion’s Seed by David Fischer

Culture of Honor by Cohen;

In short, leave this book alone and get down to the serious work of informing yourself about these things. And while we’re at it, we might all benefit by reading general works about our political and social crisis:

Republic Divided: Democracy in the Age of Social Media by Cass Sanstein (Princeton University Press)

One Nation Undecided: Clear Thinking about Five Hard Issues That Divide Us by Peter Schuck

Happiness for All? Unequal Hopes and Lives in the Pursuit of the American Dream by Carol Graham

The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy or, Why A Progressive Presidency is Impossible by John R. MacArthur (Harper’s Magazine Press)