BOOK REVIEW – September 2017

BOOK REVIEW: American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse and Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance ————————————

Reviewed by Jane Tompkins

If you like non-fiction, which I do, Monica Hesse’s American Fire and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy are pleasurable and instructive reading. They deal with the lives of working class people whom the dominant culture has left behind, and in doing so provide insight into the rifts that trouble our country. Hesse’s story about a series of fires on Virginia’s Eastern shore, told, as one reviewer said, “with wonderfully casual assurance,” captures the feeling of life on the seventy-mile long peninsula, once prosperous farming and fishing country, now an isolated backwater. The fires, lit over a five-and-half month period, destroyed eighty-six abandoned or unoccupied buildings that seem to symbolize the region’s fall from economic grace. Although we know almost from the beginning who was responsible for the arson, at least in part, the story reads like a mystery because the question is, why?

Hesse, a Washington Post reporter with an eye for human drama, with sympathy and imagination leads us step by step through the events that led to the fires, the experience of the people responsible for them, the experience of those charged with putting the fires out, and the experience of those whose job it was to apprehend whoever set them. All the while, in the background, there’s life in Accomack County, remote from urban and suburban existence, remote from corporate America, remote from the life  represented  in the news and in advertising: there are a couple of chicken factories, there’s a Walmart, there’s Shuckers bar, and lonely roads to drive down at night.

From Hesse’s standpoint, it’s clear that the arsons arose from the relationship between two people. They were set for love—out of desperation and a lack of alternatives. There’s plangency to the story, which involves romance, disappointment, betrayal, and lost hopes. The sadness stems partly from the absence of opportunity,explaining that arson is usually about power, one of the criminal profilers on the case remarked: “Serial arsonists tend to be unempowered people. They aren’t captains of industry or successful businessmen.” But the sadness stems also from the human condition. The fate of the principals remains in the mind a long time after their story has been concluded. With a change of circumstance it’s not hard to imagine it could have been you, it could have been me.

J. D. Vance’s account of growing up in Appalachia, and in industrial Ohio among Kentucky transplants, brings a more politicized mindset to bear on the culture it describes. But in the end, what saves him from jail and/or addiction has nothing to do with politics. A graduate of Ohio State University and Yale Law School, Vance looks back on his upbringing with double vision: the viewpoint of a mountain boy loyal to the values and customs of his kin, and that of a successful participant in the worlds of law and finance—according to the jacket copy, he’s a principal at a leading Silicon Valley investment firm. On the one hand, it’s a rags to riches tale of overcoming, thanks to hard work and a leg up from relatives, friends, and mentors; on the other, it solicits our understanding and sympathy for a dying way of life.

The most memorable character is the author’s grandmother, and to a lesser extent his grandfather, whose love and support kept J.D. from becoming a statistic. But these are not well-behaved old folks from On Golden Pond. When his grandmother lands in a nursing home to recover from back surgery, she bursts out:

“I hate the damned food here. Can you go to Taco Bell and get me a bean burrito?”  Indeed Mamaw hated  everything about the nursing home and once asked me to promise that if she ever faced a permanent stay, I’d take her .44 Magnum and put a bullet in her head. “Mamaw, you can’t ask me to do that. I’d go to jail for the rest of my life.”  “Well,” she said, pausing for a moment to reflect, “then get your hands on some arsenic. That way no one will know.”

Mamaw is fierce, opinionated, and explosive, though she’s always there for J. D. Violence is just around the corner in hillbilly culture, even when it’s only in the terms people use to express themselves. Vance’s major criticism of his culture is the instability of family life and the prevalence of domestic warfare —his mother had five husbands and a drug problem. He doesn’t blame the government or the schools, he blames the people themselves. Yet he admits his mother was a casualty of her father’s alcoholism, so there’s a sense of injustice and fatality here as well.

Both stories provide a lot to think about—not just in political or economic terms, but by way of understanding the human situation: Why do some people go wrong while others survive and flourish? Is it genes, luck, circumstance? Is it divine grace? Although the books don’t supply answers to these questions, and partly because they don’t, I felt better off for having read them. ~