“The Best Way up for the Hillbilly Was out”

Title of the book: Hillbilly Elegy

Author: J.D Vance

Date of Publication: June, 2016.

When you put away Hillbilly Elegy after the first read, it might appear like a brave, thoughtful and sentimental memoir about growing up in a dysfunctional Scottish-Irish immigrant family. Vance was born in Kentucky, he spent most of his formative years living in a small town called Middletown, Ohio with an “unhinged mother”, a parade of problematic father figures and his gun-brandishing Mamaw (grandmother), who loves death threats almost as much as she loves looking after neglected children.

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Subsequently, if you revisit the book with the knowledge that the Hillbilly subculture was an essential demographic in Trump’s victory, it appears like a nuanced and heartbreaking representation of the numerous disgruntled lives of the white American working class, living in the Midwest.
The author’s life is a literal personification of the ‘American Dream,’ come true, some would say; from living in a town where poverty is the family tradition, to graduating from Yale Law School.

The broad arc of the survivor narrative traces Vance’s initial years of growing up in the Midwest, surrounded by the shutting down (and imminent collapse) of scores of manufacturing industries. To Vance’s family, this means a loss of economic security and the stability of domestic life that comes with it.

The tone of the narrative is sincere and personal, and the additional research is meant to be interpreted within the context; it isn’t exhaustive, but insightful enough to bridge the ever-widening gulf between various economic classes, in a “meritocratic society.” 

He makes the worrying yet plausible claim that poverty in America, doesn’t just plague those who live in ghetto cities.  He writes, ““The statistics tell you that kids like me face a grim future — that if they’re lucky, they’ll manage to avoid welfare; and if they’re unlucky, they’ll die of a heroin overdose.”

Fortunately for him (and for us), he manages to escape this fate by imbibing hillbilly values that Mamaw drilled into his head; loyalty towards family and self-reliance. After graduating from high school, Vance enlists in the Marines, serves in Iraq, finishes his undergraduate course at Ohio University and goes on to graduate from one of the top Ivy League schools in America, where he meets his future wife.

His transition from seeking shelter to providing it, is underlined by the pressing question of why a stagnant air of pessimism hangs around those families he left behind in Middletown. The young Silicon Valley investment manager talks about a psychological phenomenon called ‘learned helplessness,’ which manifests in the indifference towards work and dependence on welfare, among the residents of Middletown. “People talk about hard work all the time in places like Middletown [Ohio],” Vance writes. “You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than 20 hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness.”

It’s essential to keep in mind that Vance’s observations about the white working class in the Rust Belt isn’t an indictment or disloyalty in the form of class betrayal. It is a sympathetic effort to nudge the hillbilly subculture out of the path of self-sabotage through its own agency and enterprise.

Place: In a feedback circle

The women here are

unbelievably vibrant and profusely silent.

 

They tell tales of a unique moral geography;

where gods and ghosts

birds and animals

death and love

live together in a strange amity.

 

They trample on notions of

‘dignified suffering’ and ‘respectability.’

Their muses are queens who lust after their gods

(first a Lover then a god)

shamelessly.

 

Their anecdotes are dotted with

characters who are by now

permanent citizens of my imagination;

the spineless father, the clueless boyfriend, (the secret girlfriend)

and the overbearing mother.

 

They stress and fret and giggle until

they create their elliptical language

for defining meaning without confining it,

for expressing what is possible before realising it.

 

They speak in tongues thick

with their language

and cut with the questions.

Place: between the lines of The Hindu

‘Impossibly thin
Enviably engineered’
declares a Hewlett Packard
laptop advertisement
Deepika Padukone;
Carmelite Alumnus
Sweetheart of India
gazes seductively at me
with her impossibly thin arm placed
on her enviably engineered butt.

Warren Buffet
smug as ever
is quoted
in a real estate ad —
“Never depend on a single income
make an investment
to create a second source”
the ambassador of the entrepreneurial spirit,
espousing propaganda of greed.

Darshan,
(Sandalwood actor)
son of Kannadarashtra
has a public feud
with his wife on Television.
‘He is news again
for his offscreen performance,’
A versatile actor
switches and shows seamlessly
his virility
in all media.

The tiny articles
are packed with information
to churn your intestines
(and your conscience)—

A lov(n)ely lady
(recently separated from her husband)
“falls off” her hostel terrace–
the sound of a bag of meat and bones
(and hopes and desperation);
recognised by it’s dull thud
against the concrete pavement.

A bag stuffed
with the mutilated lower half
of a human body
is discovered near Hebbal
recognisable only
by the male genitalia

(Hon’ble Chief Minister —
Siddarmiah reminds all the readers
“A responsible citizen
always segregates his waste)

I flip the flyaway pages shut
& ask you why
a newspaper is the only piece of literature
consumed so devotedly;
it’s unfolding, a ritual for so many

You reply,
the holy light of the smartphone screen
lighting up your smirk
“It makes you feel like could (have) be(en)
Buffet, Padukone or
(gods forbid)
Darshan.”

The human desire for
escape and tragedy
all compressed
in 24 sheets.

Leaving a Lover

You treat him like a mother would a child. Press him close to your chest, clutch his hair and brush your lips across his cheeks.
He is especially silent tonight?

You push his blonde fringe out of the way & lick his lips. He bites you back, half-heartedly. His kisses are lazy. They are no longer curious; tongues press but don’t probe.
He holds your hair back but doesn’t tangle his fingers in them or push a curl aside to bite your neck.
His sleep is heavy; he is especially silent tonight?

His silence interrupted only by snorting.
His body has been still for the past 2 hours the only movement — his small chest heaving.
The back of your head hurts, the nape of your neck is stiff, your nose is stuffed and hair is greasy.
You pick up a pen because She listens.
The silence spins louder than the ceiling fan.
He leaves you feeling empty like a bad habit.
He is especially silent tonight?

Morning comes around, a pink faced child runs up to us —
“Hi Aunty! Hi Uncle!”
“Hi Cuteness!”
“She just called you Aunty”

He skips down the stairs, happy to hear the morning birds.
You skip, miss a step and tumble down to a silence.
A silence that lasts the auto-ride-of-shame.
You feel like a wife; the disagreeable half in a relationship that leaves a lot unsaid.
You catch his eye as he looks at himself in the rearview mirror.
You give him a small embarrassed smile.
He smiles back, you look away.
He is especially silent.

Happy Diwali

One packet of all dry fruits
One tin of Rasagulla — (with three and a half rasagullas missing)
One Pista Icecream container, spoon–ed clean.
And it’s not even 5 pm, yet.

The workers at the sunny construction site
wiping their brows,
they wave.
Happy Diwali from them, too.

The fishes are scared—
startled further at the appearance
of Light.
“Good Evening”

Bags are Stuffed
Accha pushing on one of them
Amma opens a sock

And —
finds empty cigarette packets,
FIREWORKS.