“Hillbilly Elegy,” J.D. Vance

J. D. Vance’s grandmother (“Mamaw”) was tired of her husband (“Papaw”) coming home drunk night after night. Fed up, she told him that if he came home drunk again, she would kill him. One week later, Papaw came home drunk.  Vance tells us in his memoir Hillbilly Elegy that,

“Mamaw, never one to tell a lie, calmly retrieved a gasoline canister from the garage, poured it all over her husband, lit a match, and dropped it on his chest.  When Papaw burst into flames, their eleven-year-old daughter jumped into action to put out the fire and save his life. Miraculously, Papaw survived the episode with only mild burns” (43-44).

jd-vance-hillbilly-elegy-life-in-holler

This depiction of violence in hillbilly culture is nothing new.  Poor white people (a.k.a. hillbillies, rednecks, white trash, trailer trash, po ‘buckra—with their propensity towards violence and addiction–have long been fodder for humor in American popular culture.  The butt of countless jokes, poor whites have been featured over the years in TV shows ranging from The Beverly Hillbillies to Honey Boo-Boo.  At first glance, it might appear that Vance’s book is one more example of derisive humor at this group’s expense.  However, this is not the case.  Despite their failings, Mamaw and Papaw are the heroes of Vance’s memoir.  A graduate of Yale Law School, Vance claims he owes his successful rise out of the rustbelt to his violent, deeply flawed, yet fiercely protective grandparents.

J. D. Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio—a rust belt town that at one point was prosperous because of the local steel mill, Armco. His family moved there in the 1950s from Jackson, Kentucky, and he refers to himself and his entire family as “hillbillies.” Although they no longer live full-time in the mountains, Vance claims, his clan still proudly bears the marks of a distinct Appalachian culture.  Hillbilly Elegy is Vance’s attempt to analyze this culture in order to explain why his people are suffering so much today.

Students of creative nonfiction should note that Hillbilly Elegy is an example of CNF that combines both the personal (memoir) with the public (sociological study of a particular demographic). Vance writes about his family in order to make a larger point about what it is like to grow up in a downwardly mobile subculture.  Vance explains that “Though I will use data, and though I do sometimes rely on academic studies to make a point, my primary aim is not to convince you of a documented problem.  My primary aim is to tell a true story about what that problem feels like when you were born with it hanging around your neck” (8).

Knowing that Hillbilly Elegy was an attempt to explain the problems of the white working class, I expected this memoir to be a tale of economic hardship for people who want to work hard, but simply cannot find employment; a tale of good, solid, morally upright folk who, through no fault of their own, simply cannot catch a break.  I was wrong.  Vance does mention briefly the devastating effects of the decline of good-paying factory jobs.  However, he argues that the decline of good factory jobs is only part of the problem.  The other problem, he asserts, is cultural.  To be blunt, he suggests that many of the “hillbillies” with whom he grew up suffer because of their own laziness, short-sightedness, prickly sense of honor, and tendency to blame others for their own problems.  As he states, this book “is about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible.  It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it” (7).

Vance explains that his grandparents (Mamaw and Papaw) grew up in the Appalachian mountains in a subculture known for his honor, fierce loyalty to family, and violence.  They moved to Ohio when they were still young, and Papaw found a good job at the local steel factory.   His grandparents lived a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle—at least, economically.  They never really developed mainstream, middle-class values.  They brought with them, though, their hillbilly lifestyle (complete with violent responses to any perceived slight), which they passed on to their own children.

Vance’s own parents were divorced when he was very young.  His mother went through a revolving door of relationships with men and eventually became addicted to drugs herself.  By his own reckoning, Vance would have been lost without the solid home base of his Mamaw and Papaw.  Despite their many shortcomings, they did provide him with a solid work ethic, a respect for education, and a stable home.   These things, Vance believes, are what helped him to succeed and what so many of his peers were lacking.

In some ways, Vance’s memoir reminds me of Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club.   Like Vance, Karr wrote about being raised in a hard-scrabble, working-class town in a deeply dysfunctional family.  Interestingly, both Karr and Vance recount memories in which their mothers try to kill them.  Karr, however, is less analytical.  She does not attempt to draw conclusions about the socio-economic group into which she is born.  Vance does.  For me, this attempt to combine memoir with socio-ethnic-economic analysis is both the strength and the drawback of Hillbilly Elegy.  I found Vance’s cultural analysis compelling and insightful.  He painted the portrait of a culture in pain, but did not pretend that the pain was all inflicted from the outside (globalization, immigrants, the government, or whatever).  This was refreshing.  On the other hand, I found his book less effective at portraying characters as individuals with unique personalities and motivations.  He does not have Karr’s gift at creating a strong voice or plumbing the depths of individual psyches.

Overall, I found Hillbilly Elegy excellent as an insider’s view of a particular sub-culture (rust belt hillbilly/working class white), with both its strengths and weaknesses.  Given Trump’s unexpected victory, some political pundits have been urging democrats to pay more attention to working class whites and their concerns.  Vance’s memoir is a good place to start.

 

Watching the Moss Grow: “The Signature of All Things” by Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert
Elizabeth Gilbert

I do not know how to write about Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel The Signature of All Things without gushing.  I really love this book!  It’s been awhile since I curled up with such a big, fat, 19th-century-ish novel and found myself swept away so pleasurably in the story.

I call this a 19th-century-ish novel for a couple of reasons.  First of all, it is set in the 19th century.  The main character, Alma Whittaker, was born in 1800, so as her story progresses, so does the century.  The Signature, like many 19th-century novels, is grand in scope, covering not only the entire life of its protagonist, but also grapples with some of the century’s major ideas, most notably the theory of evolution.

Alma is an amateur biologist.  (She is an amateur not because she lacks the training or rigor of university scientists, but because she is a woman and lacks the proper credentials.)  She loves studying nature, and eventually specializes in mosses.  That may sound like a rather dry premise for a novel, but Gilbert manages to make it fascinating.  The novel is not just about moss, however.  It is also about love, sexual desire, ambition, regret, and even contains a jaunt to Tahiti.

signature_paperwiget_new

I enjoyed many things about The Signature of All Things, but I think the best part is the protagonist Alma Whittaker.  Alma is an unlikely heroine, especially for the 19th century.  Alma is not a physically beautiful woman, and men are not attracted to her.  She is, however, ferociously intelligent, and her parents encourage her to develop her mind to its fullest potential.

Because of her mind and her keen interest in studying the world around, Alma is able to find contentment and even happiness in her life.  As she notes here:

“I think I have been the most fortunate woman who ever lived.  My heart has been broken, certainly, and most of my wishes did not come true.  I have disappointed myself in my own behavior, and others have disappointed me.  I have outlived nearly everyone I have ever loved. . . I have not had an illustrious career.  I had one original idea in my life—and it happened to be an important idea, one that might have given me a chance to be known—but I hesitated to put it forth, and thus I missed my opportunity.  I have no husband.  I have no heirs.  I once had a fortune, but I gave it away. . . I do not think I will live to see another spring. . . Surely you are asking yourself now—why does this miserably unlucky woman call herself fortunate?”

“I am fortunate because I have been able to spend my life in study of the world.  As such, I have never felt insignificant.  This life is a mystery, yes, and it is often a trial, but if one can find some facts within it, one should always do so—for knowledge is the most precious of all commodities. . . All I ever wanted was to know this word.  I can say now, as I reach my end, that I know quite a bit more of it than I knew when I arrived.  Moreover, my little bit of knowledge has been added to all the other accumulated knowledge of history—added to the great library, as it were.  That is no small feat, sir.  Anyone who can say such a thing has lived a fortunate life.”  (497)

It seems to me that mainstream American culture gives women the message that the path to a satisfying life is narrow.  First of all women have to be beautiful.  Or, if not beautiful, at least reasonably attractive.  Second, women need to have husbands.  Third, women must have children.  Women are allowed to have a career, if they must, but it is optional and shouldn’t be taken too seriously.  The purpose of a career, of course, is to make as much money as possible. Other considerations are considered frivolous.

And that’s it.  That’s the path for happiness.  Given the extraordinary diversity of women, with all of our different interests, strengths, and weaknesses, I’ve always found the narrowness of this prescription ridiculous.  For that reason, I enjoy finding out about women (real or fictional) who defy the path and yet lead satisfying lives.  Alma Whittaker is a great example of such a woman and I think young women need to have more examples like her to emulate.

In the end, though, what makes The Signature of All Things such a great read is simply that Elizabeth Gilbert is a wonderful storyteller.  Her success with Eat, Pray Love was no fluke.  This lady knows how to write!

“Hiding in Plain Sight” by Nuruddin Farah

I wanted to like Nuruddin Farah’s most recent novel Hiding in Plain Sight.  I really did.  Farah, the prolific and distinguished Somali writer, is often spoken of as a contender for the Nobel Prize in literature.  (For more background on his life and work, click here.

photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian
photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian

I read his novel Knots several years ago and was struck by his feminism.  In that novel, the protagonist Cambara, a Somali woman who lives in Canada, returns to Somalia to take care of some business.  She and the other female characters struck me as the only ones in the novel with any sense.  The women took care of all the things that needed to be done, while the men were busy fighting each other and chewing khat.  If I had not known who the author was, I would have thought it was a woman.  Farah’s new novel Hiding in Plain Sight also has a woman as a main character.  Not only that, but the novel also portrays homosexuality as something which should not be condemned or punished. For any number of reasons, then, I was excited to read the book.

The novel opens with a focus on Aar, a sensitive Somali expat who is stationed in the UN office in Somalia briefly as a logistics officer.  Tragically, he dies when terrorists bomb the building he is in.  (This death happens in the beginning of the book, so I am not giving anything away here.)  The novel then switches perspective to Aar’s sister Bella.  The remainder of Hiding focuses on Bella and her attempts to deal not only with her grief but also to forge a new family with Aar’s children.  At the same time, she has to deal with Aar’s ex-wife Valerie, who abandoned him and his children ten years earlier to live with her female lover, Padmini.

One of the themes of the novel is the issue of sexual freedom.  Farah’s philosophy about sexuality seems to be summed up in this quotation:

“In Bella’s mind, freedom are a package, so the freedoms denied daily to millions of citizens in Africa or the Middle East are bound up with the lack of democracy in these parts of the world.  The choices individuals make in their private lives are just as important as the choices they make at the ballot box.  Public displays of affection, whether between a man and a woman or two men or two women, are but expressions of democratic behavior.  No one, not even the president of the country, should have the power and the authority to define love—including whom to love.”  (35)

Farah’s openness to sexual freedom is a laudable goal.  If that is his goal, though, I wonder why he chose to make Valerie (the lesbian mother of Aar’s children) such a nightmarish character.  She is selfish to the extreme, she has no understanding of the concept of gratitude, she is an alcoholic, and her emotions are completely erratic. I know that everybody is flawed, and there is no reason to paint a lesbian character as a saint.  Still, Valerie’s flaws were so extreme and her good qualities so few that I find her hard to accept as a believable character.

And while I do appreciate a male author who writes about strong female characters in a positive way, it seemed to me that Bella, the main character, was more of an idea (a strong, independent woman) than a believable, complex character.   She struck me as person without any emotional attachments or vulnerabilities, except for her attachment to her brother. I suppose Farah could be suggesting that she was TOO attached to her brother, which was why she found every other man lacking in comparison.  That could explain her inability (or unwillingness) to connect emotionally with anybody else, I suppose.  That changes, though, when she becomes attached to Aar’s children and wants to serve as their surrogate mother.

I imagine that at least part of Farah’s goal was to educate non-Somali readers about his war-torn country, especially in terms of its prevailing attitudes toward sexuality.  I think he was successful in that goal.  However, I think Hiding in Plain Sight worked better as an educational tool than as a successful novel.  The novel was written mainly from Bella’s perspective.  Ideally, readers would be able to get inside her head and see things the way she does.  However, often her thoughts do not sound at all realistic because Farah is using them to educate his readers rather than to portray a character.  For example, on page 135 of my edition, Bella thinks,

She knows that Aar, unlike most Somalis raised in the urban centers in the south of the country, had no issue with male homosexuality and couldn’t be bothered about lesbianism.  As for herself. . . she acknowledges that maybe she is not quite as advanced in her attitudes as she likes to think.  But with her three lovers, she knows that she cannot afford to throw stones at anyone in a similar position.  Many Somalis would think there was something wrong with her, would see her as worse than a whore, because no cash exchanged hands.”  (135)

If this were really a reflection of what Bella was thinking, she would not need to provide so much background explanation. The novel contains far too much of this type of didactic internal thoughts for more tastes.

Often the dialogue suffers from a similar weakness.  People in casual conversation, when they are not talking about food, often launch into mini-lectures on Important Subjects that also do not seem realistic.

For example, in one scene, Salif (a teenage boy) is upset with his mother Valerie, who abandoned them for ten years and now suddenly wants to be back in their lives.  His frustration is understandable, but the formality of his word choice strikes me as unbelievable:

“And let me add this, for what it’s worth, Mum.  You haven’t asked us anything about Dad, what he was like as a father to us after you left.   All you have done is create confusion in my head about the circumstances of his burial, urging me to act without even bothering to ascertain the legal and logistical implications.”  (138)

“Ascertain the legal and logistical implications?”  Really?  Does any teenage boy talk like that in casual conversation?

Overall, I would give the novel an “A” for good intentions, but a “C” for execution.  I could not get past the wooden writing style and unrealistic characters enough to get engaged in the story.

Having said that, I am not ready to give up on Nuruddin Farah.  I do plan to read some more of his earlier work.  If you have read his work, which book would you recommend?

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This post is my first entry in my own Around the World Reading Challenge.  This is my African entry.

It is also my fifth and final entry in the African Reading Challenge for 2014 hosted by kinna at Kinna Reads.  (It is late, I know.  Sorry!)  http://kinnareads.com/2014/01/14/2014-africa-reading-challenge/

 

Theo Decker Needs Cheryl Strayed

Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt

 I loved The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Although the novel was published in 1992, I didn’t read it until a year or two ago.  I found it riveting, and I mentally kicked myself for not having read it earlier.  So, I was excited to read Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch, which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch tells the story of Theo Decker, who is 13 years old at the beginning of the novel.  He and his mother were at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York, admiring the Fabritius painting “The Goldfinch,” when bombs (planted by terrorists) exploded in the museum. Theo’s mother was killed, but Theo survived.  In the ensuing chaos, Theo grabbed “The Goldfinch” and took it home with him.  He remained obsessed with his stolen possession for the rest of the novel.  To Theo, the painting was more than a priceless masterpiece.  It represented not only his lost mother, but also the very idea of beauty, of transcendence—of beauty that transcends the grim reality of everyday existence.

The idea of this story sounds compelling, and many parts of the novel ARE compelling However, I have to admit that I found large chunks of the novel rather underwhelming.  I found the first section of the novel, when Theo lost his mother and then was taken into a wealthy friend’s home appropriately disorienting.  I felt lost, numb and emotionally adrift along with Theo as he tried to adjust to a world without his mother, a world without meaning.  Theo then moved to Las Vegas to be with his father and his father’s girlfriend.  This Las Vegas section may have been my favorite section.  I thought Tartt’s portrayal of the 21st century American West as the American nightmare was brilliant, as was her creation of the Russian character Boris, the waif–thug with a deep streak of alcohol-enhanced sentimentality.

After Theo moves back to New York, however (about half way through the 771 pages), the story loses steam for me. Theo grows up to be an adult, but is still stuck in the same numb haze he was in at age 13.  He sleepwalks through life in a haze of drugs, white-collar crime, and unrequited love.  I understand that Tartt is portraying someone who is traumatized, that his sleepwalking through life is part of her point.  But still, how many hundreds of pages can a reader want to spend with someone who is this numb?

The Goldfinch could have benefited from some serious editing.  Tartt could have cut out 300 or more pages without losing anything of importance.

Better yet, I think Theo Decker should have met up with Cheryl Strayed and gone for a hike with  her. (See my previous post on Cheryl Strayed here.)  Both Theo and Cheryl were traumatized by the untimely loss of their mother.  They were both on a downward spiral and needed something to save them.  Strayed went on a 1000 mile hike in California.  Theo took a lot of drugs and stole money from people (in a complicated, high-end kind of way).  Strayed’s plan seemed to work better.

If Tartt had come to me for advice (which for some reason she never did), I would have told her to cut out the return-to-New-York section.  Instead of leaving Las Vegas to go east, Theo should sell “The Goldfinch” and use the proceeds to buy some hiking boots and backpacking gear. He should travel slightly west to the Pacific Crest Trail, where he could meet up with Strayed.  They could hike together briefly, at least long enough to have some hot sex on a rock. After the sex is over, a goldfinch would appear on the rock.  It would land there just long enough to look at them meaningfully and sing a plaintive, yet healing song.

The Goldrinch by Fabritius
The Goldfinch by Fabritius

Thus would endeth The Goldfinch.

How to Create a Terrorist, Part III

Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building.

First published in Arabic in 2002.  U.S. edition, translated by Humphrey Davies, published in 2004, Harper Perennial

This post is part of the African Reading Challenge hosted by Kinna Reads.  .

Alaa al Aswany
Alaa al Aswany

Taha el Shazli has dreamed since childhood of becoming a police officer in his home city of Cairo, Egypt, and he has done everything in his power to make that happen.  He achieved high scores on all his school tests, he trained his body to become physically fit, he cozied up to all of the policemen in his area, and he passed the qualifying examination for the police academy with flying colors.

Taha is one of the main characters in Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany’s best-selling 2002 novel The Yacoubian Building.  This novel focuses on a group of characters who all live in (or on the roof of) the once-elegant apartment complex called The Yacoubian Building.  This building is meant to represent a microcosm of Egyptian society, with the rich, poor and middle class all living intersecting lives within close proximity.

Yacoubian

Taha is one of the poor members of this microcosm, so poor that he and his father live on the roof of the building.  Taha tries his whole life to rise above his humble origins.  Despite all his efforts, however, Taha is rejected from the police academy, not because of his qualifications, but because his father is a lowly door keeper.  Class barriers are strong in Egypt.  As Taha’s girlfriend Busayna points out,

“This country doesn’t belong to us, Taha. It belongs to the people who have money.  If you’d had twenty thousand pounds and used them to bribe someone, do you think anyone would have asked about your father’s job?  Make money, Taha, and you’ll get everything, but if you stay poor they’ll walk all over you.”  (59)

After being rejected from the academy because of his father’s job, Taha starts to dream of revenge.  He moves on with his life, however, by attending university.  He finds himself unable to shake off his class though.  The university students replicate the rest of their society; his fellow students are divided into cliques of the rich vs. the poor, just as the Yacoubian Building is.

One place where Taha DOES finds a place where he feels accepted is at the Faculty’s mosque.  Most of the other young men who frequented the mosque are poor like himself, and he soon became part of a close group of friends. One of these friends eventually introduces him to Sheikh Shakir.

Shakir convinces these discontented young man to join his group in jihad.   He exhorts his listeners to rebel against the corrupt rulers of Egypt, claiming that Egypt is ruled by “French secular law, which permits drunkenness, fornication, and perversion, so long as it is by mutual consent.”  Shakir then reminds the men that their “supposedly democratic state is based on the rigging of elections and the detention and torture of innocent people so that the ruling clique can remain on their thrones forever.  They lie and lie and lie, and they want us to believe their revolting lies.”  After railing against the corrupt Egyptian government, Shakir then urges his lsteners to “reclaim the concept of gihad and bring it back to the minds and hearts of the Muslims,” noting that “Millions of Muslims humiliated and subjected to dishonor by the Zionist occupation appeal to you to restore for them t heir ruined self-respect.”  (95-97.)

Taha, like many other young men, is drawn to the words of the sheikh.  He is all too familiar with feeling humiliated and rejected and finds succor in the idea of organized resistance against all the corrupt forces that are holding him down.  Becoming an Islamist gives him “a new, powerful, bounding spirit.  He has taken to walking, sitting, and speaking to people in the building in a new way.  Gone forever are the old cringing timidity and meekness before the residents.  Now he faces them with self-confidence.”  (115)

Once Sheikh Shakir is confident of  Taha’s strengthened religious faith and his feeling of belonging, he next persuades him to join their jihadist struggle, the Islamic Action Charter.  He give Taha a copy of their brochure to read, which Taha stores in his pocket.  Not long afterwards, Taha participates in a mass protest against the Western alliance in the Gulf War.  The police are not happy with his participation in the protest, so they take him in to jail.

The police find the brochure for the Islamic Action Charter in Taha’s pocket and assume he is part of the organization.  The beat him to a pulp trying to get him to talk about it, but Taha knows nothing.  At that point, the police escalate their torture.

“Then they threw him facedown on the ground and several hands started to remove his gallabiya and pull of his underclothes.  He resisted with all his might, but they set upon him and held his body down with their hands and feet.  Two thick hands reached down, grabbed his buttocks, and pulled them apart.  He felt a solid object being stuck into his rear and breaking the tendons inside and he started screaming.  He screamed at the top of his voice.  He screamed until he felt that his larynx was being ripped open.”  (153)

It is this experience of torture and humiliation at the hands of the police that complete Taha’s transformation from an earnest, hopeful young man to a scarred soul bent on revenge.  He is now ready and willing to do anything for revenge.  He is now primed to become a member of Shakir’s jihadist organization and to volunteer for a suicide mission.

Alaa al Aswany’s portrayal of Taha has some intriguing similarities with Yasmina Khadra’s portrayal of his nameless narrator. Both of them start out as poor yet peaceful young men with high hopes for the future.  Both are brought down by a series of shocks and assaults on things and people they love.  What finally turns both of these characters towards terrorism, though, are actions of others that humiliate them and remove their sense of honor and dignity.  Once those are gone, they feel compelled to seek vengeance.  They believe this vengeance is necessary to restore themselves to life as they know it, life with dignity and honor.

Khadra’s narrator claimed that he was, for all intents and purposes, dead after seeing the humiliation  his father suffered at the hands of the American soldiers.  Similarly, Taha felt dead after his torture by the police.  He said to the sheikh,

“I’m dead now.  They killed me in detention.  When they trespass on your honor laughing, when they give you a woman’s name and make you answer with your new name and you have to because of the savagery of the torture. . . You want me to forget all that and go on living?’

Whether this loss of honor and dignity come from Western military forces or from the brutal Egyptian police, these characters believe they must take action to restore their sense of selves.

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This post is the third in my series “How to Create a Terrorist.”  The first two posts were on Yasmina Khadra’s novel The Sirens of Baghdad:

 https://debrabooks.wordpress.com/2014/11/01/how-to-create-a-terrorist-part-i/

https://debrabooks.wordpress.com/2014/11/02/how-to-create-a-terrorist-part-ii/