Randall Payleitner


Book Review #8: Hillbilly Elegy

Memoirs written by people in their early thirties are usually a bit nonsensical. But so also are the times in which we live.

After reading the first few paragraphs, I immediately understood this book’s appeal. Here’s a normal guy who, against all reasonable odds and the norms of his community, went to college and then graduated from Yale Law School—effectively jumping at least two rungs on the social capital ladder before he was 30.

At times the book struggled to find itself. Is this a memoir of a poor white kid with an addict parent who moved around a lot? Or is it a snapshot of Rust Belt/Appalachian America? Or is it a statistical analysis of why some kids make it and others don’t? In the end, it’s all of these. The endnotes scattered throughout seemed a little out of place—they kind of made it feel like a mixed-genre book, but, I suppose, they also helped bolster his claims and experiences.

The first 80% of the book reads like a fascinating novel or the book version of some 10-part Netflix drama. The last 20% of the book clearly drags along as he doesn’t really know how to end it (this makes perfect sense for someone whose life isn’t even half over)!

So, what separated J.D. from the pack? Why did he get to “jump classes” (and move from Yale to Cincinnati to San Francisco never looking to go back to Middletown)? Here’s what I took away:

  • He worked hard.
  • He had a few adults who looked out for him.
  • He wrote good essays.
  • He didn’t steal stuff or do drugs.
  • And, he read a lot of books.


Pivotal Excerpts:

His environment: “People talk about hard work all the time in places like Middletown. You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than twenty hours a week and find not a single person aware of this own laziness” (57).

His ticket out: “I would beat myself up when I didn’t understand a concept, and storm off, defeated. But after I’d pout for a few minutes, Papaw was always ready to go again. Mom was never much of a math person, but she took me to the public library before I could read, got me a library card, showed me how to use it, and always made sure I had access to kids’ books at home. In other words, despite all of the environmental pressures from my neighborhood and community, I received a different message at home. And that just might have saved me” (60).

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