This is not another glowing review of the universally-praised Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance's first-hand account of the problems facing the white working-class in Appalachia and the Rust Belt. Not because I don't like the memoir—along with apparently everyone else who has read it, I found the memoir engaging and hope that it redirects our national policies. But to recognize just how original Hillbilly Elegy is means knowing how other popular literature often depicts Vance's subject matter. Consider Jonathan Franzen's 2010 novel Freedom, which emphasizes the supposedly violent racism of modern Appalachia.
An Oprah's Book Club selection that counts Leslie Knope among its fans, Freedom includes scenes set in the mountains of West Virginia. The novel's main character, Walter Bergland, travels there with his assistant Lalitha, a young "dark-skinned woman, slight of build and alluring of feature." Because Walter is married (though not happily) and Lalitha has a serious boyfriend, they struggle to resist their attraction to each other. But when they get drunk and flirtatious at a restaurant in Beckley, a small town about 60 miles south of Charleston, they draw the attention of a local man—"white, thirtyish, with hard living in his face"—who confronts Walter in the restroom. He refers to Walter's taste in "dark meat" and says, "I seen what you doing with that n—r girl." (Lalitha is of Indian descent.) Walter escapes the bathroom without further incident, but later the ornery mountaineer pushes him against the wall calls him a "dark-meat lover," a "f—ing spectacle," and a "f—ing pervert."
The man's anger for Walter stems in part from his assumption that Walter is getting Lalitha drunk to take advantage of her ("Candy's dandy but liquor's quicker," he says knowingly), and Walter himself feels guilty about the situation for the same reason. But the strongest source of the man's hatred, the motive Franzen emphasizes, is racism. Walter had otherwise "been agreeably surprised by the number of black-white couples he'd seen in Charleston, and by the generally low priority of racism among the state's many ailments." But the intensity of the man's bigotry overshadows the general tolerance. (The man's violent behavior, if not his racist motives, is in keeping with a major thread of Hillbilly Elegy, where people attack or threaten each other for little cause.)
This encounter with the violent racist foreshadows a major turning point. After Walter and Lalitha finally pursue a romantic relationship, she conducts business in West Virginia without him and (spoiler alert) dies in a car accident. We never know precisely what causes the wreck:
Whether she was or wasn't rushing on the rain-slick county highway back up to the goat farm the next morning, whether she was or wasn't rounding the blind mountain curves dangerously fast. Whether a coal truck had come flying around one of these curves and did what a coal truck did somewhere in West Virginia every week. Or whether somebody in a high-clearance 4x4, maybe somebody whose barn had been defaced with the words free space or cancer on the planet [references to Walter and Lalitha's population control initiative], saw a dark-skinned young woman driving a compact Korean-made rental car and veered into her lane or tailgated her or passed her too narrowly or even deliberately forced her off the shoulderless road.
As suspenseful as this passage is, it always struck me as remarkably cheap. There's something positively Trumpian about the final insinuation, which casually makes the charge of racist murder and quickly moves along. "People are saying she may have been killed by a racist hillbilly. You know who I'm talking about—the kind of guy with a barn and who hates outsiders and dark-skinned people. People are saying that."
Although it's one in a series of possibilities conveyed loosely through Walter's flawed perspective, the racist motive comes in the longest sentence and at the end of the paragraph, leaving the strongest impression on readers, and the narrator offers it uncritically. The insinuation is especially galling considering that Franzen had established earlier that "Lalitha was a fast and somewhat reckless driver" who sped past trucks on rainy mountain interstates. What could have been a passage of compelling ambiguity descends into a cheap stereotype.
When I first read Freedom, I was living in Appalachia with my wife, whose appearance closely matches Franzen's description of Lalitha. In our years there, we never experienced anything like what the novel portrays in these scenes: no taunts, no assaults, no stares in small towns, no homicidal road rage. There was one home seller who seemed less eager to show his property when he met us in person, and my wife was occasionally asked awkward questions about her native language (English)—as she is most everywhere she goes. But that's it.
Franzen is free to exercise artistic license, and good fiction (for all its flaws, Freedom is a good novel) often depicts the possible rather than the probable. What's troubling about Freedom is how casually it presents, even assumes, the racist motive, and appeals to the worst expectations of its readers.
Which brings us back to Hillbilly Elegy. Fareed Zakaria has argued that Vance, by claiming that President Obama "feels like an alien" to his hometown family and friends "for reasons that have nothing to do with skin color," goes too far in downplaying their bigotry. Perhaps Zakaria has a point, and I don't mean to suggest that the white working-class is free of racism. What's certain, however, is that authors like Franzen overstate the racism of Appalachia in particular, presenting it as a ruling passion of the mountains. Vance's detailed portrait, while by no means rosy, may help correct the warped view that too many people encountered in Freedom.
Christopher J. Scalia is a writer in Washington.