The bottom line of J. D. Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy, is that far too many people from southeastern Kentucky are trapped in a hillbilly culture that stands in the way of their own success. As if that weren’t bad enough, hillbillies are discriminated against because people aren’t willing to distinguish between good hillbillies and bad hillbillies.

Vance himself succeeded beyond any conceivable hillbilly imagination, but is his experience really relevant to others? What, exactly, was it that allowed Vance to become so successful?

In the first place, it was his Mamaw and Papaw. Whatever we might say about them, they provided a safe and stable place for young J. D. when he needed it. And with a mom like Bev, J. D. needed it often. As Vance says in his book, “[Mamaw and Papaw] were, without question, or qualification, the best things that ever happened to me.”

Mamaw and Papaw didn’t launch young J. D. on the road to success, but they kept him from spiraling down into abject failure, thus keeping alive the possibility of success somewhere down the road.

In the second place, it was the United States Marine Corps. Vance was a smart guy, his dismal high school grades notwithstanding, and his SAT scores were good enough to get him accepted at Ohio State.

But if he could barely make it through high school, even with the stability Papaw and Mamaw provided, how in the world would he get through the unstructured world of college? He would likely flunk out his freshman year.

Vance knew that about himself, but had no idea what to do about it. Fortunately, he had a cousin who was a Marine Corps veteran – a female cousin – and she put it to him straight: the Corps, she told him, “will whip your ass into shape.” Vance deferred Ohio State and enlisted in the Marines, the best decision he had ever made.

When he graduated from high school Vance was a pudgy, unfocused kid with fairly serious emotional issues. But in a short time the Marines turned him into a disciplined, centered, proud and hardworking grownup. By the time Vance had completed his four-year enlistment, college would be a piece of cake for him: he worked two jobs while carrying a full course load, and did well enough to get into Yale Law School.

I’ve seen this phenomenon before. When I was in early high school I knew an older kid in my neighborhood, Danny, who was a roughneck, always getting in fights, always getting in (relatively minor) trouble with the law.

Then one day Danny “borrowed” a neighbor’s car to take his girl out for some curb service. The neighbor called the cops and the cops knew where to look: the local lover’s lane. Sure enough, there was Danny and his girl (en déshabillé, naturally). Since Danny had been arrested before he could return the car, the cops had only Danny’s word for it that he had only “borrowed” it – they charged him with grand theft auto.

In a plea bargain, the charge was reduced to joy riding, but the judge, who had already had Danny before him too many times, wasn’t amused and wasn’t interested in the bargain. “I’m giving you a choice, kid,” he said. “You can go to prison for a-year-and-a-day, or you can join the Army.” Danny went straight from court to the Army recruiting station.

But once the Army got a look at Danny’s record, they wouldn’t take him. (Later, when the Vietnam War was going strong, the army would take anybody with a pulse, but this was a few years before that.)

Poor Danny was in a tough spot – he had a week to show the judge he’d enlisted, or he was going to be hauled off to jail. Then somebody mentioned that the Marine Corps might be willing to overlook Danny’s checkered past. And that turned out to be true – the Corps believes it can make a Marine out of almost anybody, no matter how unpromising the raw material. (Cf., Stanley Kubrick, Full Metal Jacket.)

I only saw Danny one time after he got out of the Marines, and I absolutely didn’t recognize him. It wasn’t just that he’d grown an inch and put on thirty pounds of hard muscle – Danny was a different human being. Like J. D. Vance, he’d entered the Marines a mess and had come out the sort of man most of us would like to be.

But how many people who grow up in a hillbilly culture have someone in their lives like Mamaw and Papaw? I don’t know, but I suspect the number is very small. Most hillbillies with hillbilly moms (Bev, e.g.) and no dads (or too many of them, like young J. D. Vance) are simply doomed.

And, of the tiny group that are fortunate to have a Mamaw and Papaw, how many will find something like the Marine Corps to turn their lives around? Very few.

And note that hillbillies need both. Having a relative or friend who can provide stability in your life is a necessary but insufficient condition for success – you still need the Marines. And joining something like the Marines is also a necessary but insufficient condition – you needed to have Mamaw and Papaw along the way.

There are, of course, many dignified ways to conduct your life short of Yale Law School. But if you are raised in an unstable hillbilly culture, the odds against your accomplishing much of anything are very high. Most likely what you will accomplish is to raise another generation of hillbillies who suffer from the same success deficits as you.

Vance doesn’t offer solutions in Hillbilly Elegy, possibly because there aren’t any. Or at least, there aren’t any that don’t involve profound changes in how both hillbillies and American society approach the problems. Maybe the most hopeful thing on the horizon is a rumor: that Vance may run for a US Senate seat in Ohio.

Next up: On Illiberal Democracies

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