“I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.” This quote and similar variations have been credited to Pascal, John Locke, Benjamin Franklin and Henry David Thoreau, among others. It’s popular because it’s clever, surprising and exemplifies the power of short writing. It’s also true—writing short takes more time.
Writing short should be the aim of any writing. Good writing is efficient writing—not necessarily short in length, but no longer than it needs to be. When I taught, I would tell my writing students that their first task is to figure out what they want to say—no more, no less—and say it in the simplest way possible. In the world of product development, there is a thing called the MVP—the minimum viable product. What is the simplest thing we can make as a basic prototype of our idea? In writing, there should be the SVP—the shortest viable passage. The shortest passage required to convey your idea. Anything beyond that must add something new to the text—either in meaning or style. If it isn’t additive, it doesn’t belong. As Clark notes, “How, what, and when to cut in the interest of brevity, focus and precision must preoccupy the mind of every good short [my edit] writer.”
But this book isn’t just about editing. Short writing requires elegance too. It requires craft. The ability to find the one evocative word that does the work of four lazy words. An “ear” for writing and an understanding of the interconnected parts, the machinery of the sentence. So while Roy Peter Clark has titled his book How to Write Short, it’s really about how to write well.
The first part of the book is about seeing and understanding short writing. Each section has relevant, often entertaining examples and ends with challenges to drive the subject home. The second part of the book is about putting those lessons to work both in writing and editing. Here’s my favorite advice from How to Write Short (some of it paraphrased):
Collect short writing samples. Billboards, tweets, lyrics, poetry, fortune cookies, street signs—short writing, good and bad, is all around us. Start a collection. Study why the good writing works (and why the bad writing doesn’t).
Be an active reader. Read with a pen. Write in the margins. Ask why the writer made the choices she did. Would you make the same choices?
Learn how to manipulate the elements. Balance, pace, rhythm, surprise, word choice, implication. These are the levers you can pull to take your reader exactly where you want them to go.
Understand how tension works. The best writing—even a single sentence—has tension. A little rub, a push pull. I talk about this a lot in my writing class, that there must be a sense of conflict/resolution. It can be as simple as a question/answer, a word play or an internal allusion, but the human brain likes the sense that a connection has been made, a problem solved, a loop closed.
Stick the landing. “Always try to put the funniest word at the end of your sentence underpants,” Clark jokes. But it is such an important point. Emphasis naturally wants to be at the end, so craft your sentences, paragraphs, chapters and books to stick the landing.
Know the easy edits. Fluff words, redundant words, cumbersome phrases, inactive verbs, adverbs, intensifiers. Locate them, annihilate them.
Be able to kill your darlings. Writing teacher Donald Murray makes this salient point about editing: “Brevity comes from selection and not compression.” You must be able to identify the core of what you’re saying and be willing to kill the rest.
Use evocative, visual language.
This is a very good book on writing, worth a spot on the shelf. While it may not measure up to some of the classics, it has the advantage of being of the moment. Examples of great short writing from Twitter, current comedians and recent ads, for example, make it very relevant. And, not surprisingly, it is very well written. Any writer or teacher of writing will pick up at least a thing or two from How to Write Short.
It would be hard to top Barbara Tuchman’s Pulitzer-winning The Guns of August, for an account of the start of World War I. But that is told from the grand perspective, at times with a distinctly American bent. What interested me with this book is that it’s a ground-level perspective from one of the first countries to face Germany’s assault: France.
It may be dumbing it down, but to explain the opening aggression of World War I, I’ve always liked the metaphor of three men standing at a bar. On the left is France. On the right, Russia. In the middle, Germany. Germany knew that Russia and France were buds, so if a fight broke out, it would be in trouble. So Germany had developed a plan—the Schlieffen Plan—in the event of trouble. It would turn, cold-cock France immediately, knocking them out of the fight, then turn around and face Russia head-on. This way, Germany figured, it could make it a fair fight.
France knew of the Schlieffen plan, so it wasn’t completely unprepared. Plus, part of the plan required Germany to cross through neutral Belgium, kind of throw a hook punch around Belgium’s head, to keep to the bar fight analogy. Which slowed Germany’s assault somewhat (Belgium was not amenable to the entire German army just “passing through”).
So this all was the run-up to war. And what Cabanes gives us is a look at several aspects of life in France as this big German fist was headed their way. Tensions had been building in Europe for years, and there was an obvious tangle of treaties that could potentially drag country after country into the conflict like an intercontinental Rube Goldberg machine. Still, many people lacked the imagination to believe that the continent would go to war on such a large scale.
Before, we spoke of peace and war, but (at least, those of us in the generations born after 1870) we didn’t know what we were talking about; peace was something we were used to, it was the air that everyone breathed without thinking about it; war was a word, a purely theoretical concept. When we suddenly realized that this concept could change into reality, we felt in our entire being a shock whose memory cannot be erased.
When the war did come, there was the naïve belief that it would be swift and short, certainly wrapping up by year’s end. This, of course, was not to be. Cabanes recounts stories of soldiers shipping off from all over France, of tearful goodbyes, of trains shuttling thousands of men north and east. Deserters were few, as anyone shirking their soldierly duties faced the firing squad. And, it seemed, there were few who would turn away from service anyway. As is often the case, the war was a unifying force on the French populace. The country had been on the verge of revolution (again) leading up to the war, but even the revolutionaries supported the war effort, for the greater good.
The War existed at a pivotal point in the history of warfare, and like the American Civil War, the first few months would be a bloody demonstration of what happens when outmoded tactics and training meet new technologies on the battlefield. In this case, the potential of industrialized killing was on full display, and the French army, still a 19th-century army in weapons, tactics, and attitude, was on the receiving end of the demonstration.
French commanders, in fact much of French society, still believed in the “good death,” the honorable death of the soldier who sacrifices his life for his country. They would see plenty of it. French soldiers shipped out in their signature red pants (making them an easy target), led by commanders who still believed in the “heroic ideal” of the cavalry charge. They had drilled outmoded tactics that would quickly and obviously fail them on the battlefield. Everything about the French military was ill-suited for industrial warfare, and they would pay dearly. Across eastern France and southern Belgium, young French soldiers were cut to pieces by the German war machine. On August 22 alone, during the Battle of the Frontiers, over 27,000 Frenchmen were killed. It remains to this day the bloodiest day in French history.
The news of the dead came home—oftentimes with no body to follow. The families of these fallen soldiers demanded that their bodies be returned, but they did not understand the damage done to a body by artillery fire.
As the Germans pushed across the French countryside, the war was brutal. They often took out their frustrations on the town they passed, in both Belgium and France. Estimates put the number of homes and other buildings burned by the Germans at between fifteen and twenty thousand. “Crimes of desecration” became common as German soldiers targeted the most sacred and meaningful possessions of the French—their photos, their family heirlooms, the artifacts that gave them a sense of place and community. Germans executed over 900 French and 5,500 Belgians in their invasion.
As the Germans marched on, rumors of their brutality preceded them. Sometimes the rumors were false, such as the widespread story that Germans were hacking off the hands of children in the towns they took (there is no evidence of this taking place), but it didn’t matter. Masses of French citizens fled ahead of the invasion. A half million people evacuated from Paris, and masterpieces were evacuated from the Louvre. There was real fear that Paris would never be the same.
German soldiers marched with anger and bitterness, for the swift punch intended to knock France out quickly had been more of a fight than they’d anticipated. Toward Paris, they carried the motto “Paris will pay for France.” But the Germans would not make it (not until 1940, at least). A couple critical losses and a redistribution of forces would find the Germans coming up short of the French capital, eventually bogged down at the famously brutal trench line known as The Western Front.
One of the fascinating aspects of Cabanes’s account is the ground-level reaction of the French to the pressures of war. Paranoia swept French towns, and the government and citizens alike began rooting out anyone with suspected German ties, particularly those of German heritage. German Jews were targeted, as were many of the refugees fleeing from the east. Strangers were met with suspicion, if not outright violence. Stores hung signs declaring their French allegiance. People posted their French voting cards in their windows. It is a situation eerily resonant, over a century later.
The outcome of the war has been well documented, as has the way the war changed the world. But I would have liked to have read about how the war changed French society. What this book brings to life so vividly is the unease, the panic, the confusion and the chaos that rippled through France, even in the towns never directly attacked during the war. I’d be interested in a ground-level examination of the aftermath. How does a society so wracked with fear, with citizens who have demonstrated their ability to turn against one another in the face of Armageddon, go back to being “normal” when Armageddon is turned away at the gate? What is the new normal?
For anyone interested in World War I, this is a unique perspective, certainly different than those told from a global or American viewpoint. It will, I imagine, be an interesting pair with Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel, told from the POV of a German soldier. I plan to read that one in the new year. There is so much to read on World War I, but these “ground level” accounts start to help one imagine what is ultimately an unimaginable tragedy. It reverses the typical trend as historical events grow more distant, which is to get a wider, more grand perspective, and it forces us to consider the statistics of death and devastation for what they are—a collection of individual lives. People with families, homes, daily routines and dreams that existed outside of war, before the war, disrupted, destroyed.
I don’t want to do a disservice to either of these books by lumping them together just because they have similar titles and subjects, but I think it’s interesting to compare these two well-publicized 2016 novels and consider their significance at the moment. I hope this doesn’t detract from either—they’re very different books, each successful in its own right.
The Underground Railroad is the nickname for the network of people and safe places that helped slaves escape captivity and reach freedom in pre-Civil War America. According to James A. Banks in March Toward Freedom: A History of Black Americans (1970), the Underground Railroad helped an estimated 100,000 slaves escape to freedom. Traffic on the Railroad peaked in the 1840s and 1850s. To give this context, though, slave traders kidnapped Africans and sold them as property in the New World for over three centuries—from 1525 to 1866. In that time, an estimated 12.5 million Africans were taken, with 10.7 million surviving the voyage. So the Underground Railroad, while it sparked the imaginations of reporters and engendered fear in slave owners, actually did little to ease the overall suffering.
I remember hearing about the Underground Railroad when I was in elementary school. Possibly because of the image it evokes, or maybe it seemed exciting to imagine a fugitive on the run, it always captured my imagination. There was a house in the town I grew up—the “house with seven chimneys,” we called it—that was rumored to have been a stop (According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, “The house has numerous ties to the Underground Railroad through James D. Conrey, a Methodist minister, who owned the house in the 1840s.”).
We once took a field trip to a camp where we took part in an Underground Railroad reenactment. I’m not sure what to make of this, thinking back on it. I know the intentions were good, but the thought of a bunch of white kids running around in the woods, pretending to be escaped slaves makes me cringe. What I do remember, what I’m sure we all took away from it, is that it was fun to run and hide. I’m not sure what they could have done, short of literally dragging one of us into the woods for real lashings, or tying a friend in a canvas bag and throwing them in the river, for us to really comprehend what we were simulating.
That is, I think, the danger of the Underground Railroad as a subject. It seems exciting. It is shrouded in mystery and intrigue. It’s ripe for an exciting story, but an exciting story can’t be told outside of the context of immense, incomprehensible suffering. The Underground Railroad was an act of desperation, and many people died on it and in service of it. But even that death toll is dwarfed by the human toll of slavery as a whole.
In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act (a part of the Compromise of 1850) fundamentally changed the Underground Railroad and raised the stakes for those participating. By law, any citizen of the United States was required to return any escaped slave to his or her owner. Stiff penalties were enacted for anyone aiding escaped slaves. Furthermore, any black man or woman even accused of being a slave bore the burden to prove that they were not a slave, lest they be shipped off to the south as well. As a result, the destination of most escaped slaves was no longer just north of the Mason-Dixon line, but all the way to Canada.
Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad
The time of the Fugitive Slave Act is the backdrop for Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad, which takes place during the 1850s, the peak of the actual Underground Railroad. But he quickly departs from historical accuracy, creating instead a world in which the Underground Railroad is literally a railroad that runs underground, with tracks and stations and benches and conductors. Two escaped slaves, Cora and Caesar, make their way across the south, pursued by a ruthless slave tracker named Ridgeway.
Cora flees state to state, each state an episodes infused with magical realism that inevitably draws comparisons to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but each state presents its own form of nightmare. Early, we find a plantation that is like what one might expect. But later, we find a place where skyscrapers rise impossibly from the rural landscape, where burned bodies hang in grotesque displays, where museums about the lives of slaves are populated with actual slaves forced to act out those lives, where all the forms of racism are on display, from the brutal to the more insidious “racist who is not a racist.” Many of the inversions are drawn from history. Not literal 1850s history, but from other periods when some of the world’s most racist ideas were put into action. It’s as if Whitehead has chosen to scrape history of its greatest atrocities and heap them upon his protagonists, one after the other.
It is a terrible landscape, unsettling not just for its violence, but for its ability to disorient, to skew perspective. Historical truth is bent in service of a message about historical “truth,” as if Whitehead is conducting an illusion to teach us something about how easily we can be fooled. It has the feel of a carnival act with no escape. We just go deeper and deeper underground.
The Underground Railroad is a book about myth, about representation. There is a line that Ridgeway, the slave catcher, says to Cora about what the two of them represent: “For every slave I bring home, twenty others abandon their full-moon schemes. I’m a notion of order. The slave that disappears is a notion too. Of hope.” Ridgeway is telling us exactly what his role is, not just in this story, but in the grand story. He realizes he is a symbol.
Later, an abolitionist explains to Cora that, “Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth.” It is a notion that resonates, particularly in 2016, that hope is based not necessarily on what is true, but what one believes to be true. In the final scene, Whitehead adds a final plot piece that both brings this point home and punches the reader in the gut.
The Underground Railroad is an excellent book. It took a bit for me to understand what Whitehead was doing, and I think I would benefit from a second reading. But it would be well worth it.
Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
In Underground Airlines, we find ourselves in another kind of alternate reality, but in this case the world is modern. For a reason I won’t divulge, the American Civil War never happened, and the legal right to own slave still exists in four of the U.S. states. Those states are pariahs to the rest of the U.S., where trade in any goods produced from slave labor has been banned. But the Fugitive Slave Law is still in effect, requiring that escaped slaves be returned to their rightful owners.
It’s in this world that we meet Victor. He’s an African-American, an escaped slave himself, but like a criminal-turned-informant, he has been coerced by the U.S. Marshalls to work as a bounty hunter specializing in capturing escaped slaves. He’s monitored by a transmitter implanted in his body and has never met his boss in person, only over the phone. He’s on a particularly opaque case that, as he begins to unravel it, points to a much larger conspiracy.
If this all sounds like science fiction meets hard-boiled detective novel, it’s true. Winters owes as much to Phillip K Dick and Walter Mosley as to Ralph Ellison. It’s a meditation on race and racism, but it’s couched in a plot juiced by propellant genre contrivances. This is, I think, the weakest part of the novel. It borrows from these conventions and thus owes to them—while the plot arc isn’t exactly predictable, it at times feels familiar.
What is truly compelling about the novel, though, is the world Winters imagines. The implications of modern slavery raise questions about our current economy. On the Slate Audio Book Club, Jamelle Bouie makes the point that the novel imagines a very realistic transition of the slave economy from agriculture to industry as the country shifted. There’s no reason to think this wouldn’t have happened. Instead of picking cotton, slaves would have been put to work making clothes and cheap furniture in factory jobs. In Underground Airlines, those goods are exported to the handful of countries that don’t have embargoes against the slave states.
The details of this imaginary universe make it convincing and uncomfortable, because it’s easy to see connections to today’s world, our consumer culture, our industrial practices, our surveillance programs and our criminal justice system. Even more uncomfortable, it’s easy to see how the racism of some of the characters in the book is not that far removed from the racism of some of the characters who populate our news feeds. The legacy of slavery has ended, the book seems to suggest, because the laws say it has. But how much have the attitudes evolved? If the laws had never been changed, if the Civil War had never set us right through so much violence and death, where would we be? Would slavery have been broken, or would it have just dwindled, been pushed out of sight, and tolerated as a necessary evil?
* * * * *
What strikes me about these two books, when considered together, is that both authors encase the topic of slavery in different genres, as if that allows them to poke and prod it, stretch and twist it, to see where it can go and what it can do. Whitehead relies on his expansive imagination, leaving slavery in its chronological place but using magical realism to distort the world into something abstract, fantastical and horrifying. Winters uses a character we’re familiar with, the morally compromised hard-boiled hero, to sprint through a dystopia. We ride along to see if Victor can solve the case, can avoid the dangers, but in doing so we put our own moral certitude in danger. These are very different approaches, admirably ambitious. And both authors succeed in creating brave, provocative worlds. Both books are well worth reading.
*** WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS ***
The first time I read No Country for Old Men was in 2007. I burned through the book the weekend before the release of the Coen Brothers’ Best-Picture-winning film adaptation. It is my favorite film, and McCarthy has since become one of my favorite authors. I’ve read most of his work and have seen the film for No Country a half dozen times, but I wanted to go back and try the book again to see how it fares. It fares well.
No Country is sparse. Unlike the deep tangles of other McCarthy novels that have you reaching for a dictionary every other page (Suttree and Blood Meridian come to mind), the language is simple. It almost reads like a screenplay.
On its surface, it is about a man, Llewelyn Moss, a Viet Nam vet and a retired welder, who finds a satchel full of money in the desert near the scene of a bloody shootout. Dead bodies are scattered about, and there’s a truck loaded with drugs. Moss, knowing very well the danger it might put him in, takes the satchel anyway. In doing so, he makes a choice that sets in motion a hellstorm of violence. He is pursued by a psychopathic killer named Anton Chigurh, along with other faceless drug cartel members. Moss’s wife, Carla Jean, and other secondary characters are pulled into the fray. And one step behind, one step slow, trying to make sense of it all (and the clearest embodiment of the “old men” in the title) is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell.
In the film, the character of Anton Chigurh is memorably played by Javier Bardem. He won the Oscar for Best Support Actor for the role, and it’s hard to not picture him when you read the book. Chirgurh is hired to retrieve the case of money, and he seems unstoppable in that quest. He is, some readers contend, death incarnate—representative of an unstoppable natural phenomenon. Carson Wells, one of the characters who steps into Chigurh’s path, compares him to the Bubonic Plague. He has a mysterious past, a calm demeanor, and a devout belief in chance.
This is a main theme of the novel, the theme McCarthy seems to be wrestling with via his characters. Much of the existential dialogue, sometimes bordering on Socratic debate, revolves around the role of chance and the unknowable consequences of our smallest decisions.
Llewelyn Moss exists on the side of self-determination. He is as capable a protagonist as anyone could hope for. A good shot, a quick wit, tough as dirt. He’s a hero befitting an action film set in west Texas. In fact, one might find in Moss’s DNA old Western heroes like John Wayne. It’s as if one of the great Western heroes was lifted from the security of his “cowboys vs indians” shootouts and dropped into the bloodbath that is the modern drug war, complete with machine guns and sociopathic killers. Moss is the kind of character in complete control of his fate. If he’s not determining his fate, there’s little hope for any of us.
But after he decides to take the case full of money, there is very little of the plot that he controls. He acts, often with cunning, but it is a reaction to the events. He is like a man in a wild river, able to stay afloat but with no ability to alter the course of the water.
Chigurh, on the other hand, believes that we are all at the mercy of chance. He embraces luck. Before he murders innocent bystanders, he sometimes gives them an opportunity to call a coin flip. Early on, at a remote gas station, he engages in conversation with the man behind the counter. He asks the man what’s the most he’s ever lost on a coin toss. By this point, the reader knows exactly what is at stake, but the man is confused. He doesn’t want to wager anything on a coin toss. It doesn’t make any sense. A coin toss doesn’t mean anything.
Chigurh is almost incredulous. To him, a coin toss and what it represents means everything. You can’t “separate the act from the thing. As if parts of some moment in history might be interchangeable with the parts of some other moment.” Everything in the life of the man and the life of Chigurh have brought them to this moment. Even the coin is significant. “It’s been traveling 22 years to get here. And now it’s here.”
This encounter mirrors a scene at the end of the book, where Carla Jean also argues with Chigurh about the coin flip. But her argument is not about the metaphysics of the moment. Appropriate to her character, she makes the argument personal. She tells Chigurh that he is the one in control: “You make it like it was the coin. But you’re the one.”
“It could have gone either way,” Chigurh says.
But Carla Jean knows she’s right. “The coin didn’t have no say. It was just you.” It is a more insightful argument than Wells makes, but it does her no good.
These are the kinds of details I enjoyed the second time through this book. The purpose of each character (McCarthy is an author you can count on to have considered the meaning of everything in his books) and how they serve not just the plot but the theme. Like that Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson in the film) serves so perfectly as the antithesis of Chigurh’s superstitious worldview. He is befuddled in his debate with Chigurh, eventually resorting to just calling Chigurh crazy.
“The nature of this conversation?” Chigurh asks.
“The nature of you,” Wells replies.
Wells is so blind to the role of luck that in one scene, he notes that a building appears to be “missing a floor,” presumably unaware that many buildings intentionally have no “unlucky” thirteenth floor. Or another part in which Wells, examining the scene of a shootout, astutely notices two bullet holes high on an apartment building. When he goes into an apartment to investigate, he finds an old woman who had been sitting in her rocking chair when one bullet came through the wall and hit her in the head, killing her. “Not what you had in mind at all, is it darling?” Wells says. He also notices a bullet hole in the calendar on the wall, but fails to think anything significant of the date marked by the hole—three days hence. It’s some not-too-subtle foreshadowing, but Wells is only equipped to see physical evidence; he is blind to metaphysical clues, and he will pay for it.
And then there is the character of Ed Tom Bell, played brilliantly by Tommy Lee Jones in the film. Arguably, perhaps, despite all the death in the novel, I find Bell to be the most tragic character. The motivations of Moss and Chigurh are clear—get away with the money, retrieve the money. But Bell has much more depth as a character. He is of two worlds that are quickly being consumed by this new form of evil: he represents the people of west Texas, people who are “common as dirt” (and he considers that a good thing). And he is of a lineage of law enforcement, telling stories of Texas Rangers, of shootouts with Mexicans. He is of solid, simple stock. Like the old Westerns, he believes in a clear-cut delineation between good and bad.
He is our moral lens through which we consider the action. Each chapter starts with an italicized monologue from Bell, and he engages in conversations with other characters—his wife and his uncle—about what he sees. So we get his thoughts directly. And Bell is struggling. He is trying and failing to comprehend this modern world. Some of it comes across as an old person complaining about the young. Bell comments on a girl with green hair and a bone in her nose. When he sits next to a liberal at a fundraising event who comments that she doesn’t like the direction the country is headed, that she wants her granddaughter to be able to have an abortion, he replies that she doesn’t need to worry—the way the country’s headed, not only will she be able to have an abortion, “she’ll be able to have you put to sleep.” He then adds, in dry Sheriff Bell humor, “Which pretty much ended the conversation.”
But the most harrowing stories are those where Bell recognizes how outmatched he is. In one story, he talks about how all the mason jars were sold out in towns along the Texas-Mexico border, because over in Mexico, the cartels were using them to hold their grenades. They could pull the pin of the grenades and shove them into mason jars, then throw the grenades from helicopters onto rival cartels without the grenades blowing up midair. The image of the mason jar—evoking family gardens and old ladies preserving their peaches, but now used by drug cartels raining death from above—is a simple but acute encapsulation of the monumental shift Bell has witnessed.
In another story, he talks about how they found a cartel plane in the middle of the Texas desert and a deputy suggested they just wait for the cartel members to return to it. When they tell the deputy that nobody’s coming back for it, the idea that the criminals they’re fighting have so much money they can just abandon an entire plane settles in uneasily. They are all clearly outmatched.
“It takes very little to govern good people,” Bell says. “Very little at all. And bad people can’t be governed at all.” Early on, he assumes Moss is one of the bad people. That he’s running drugs. But Bell comes to understand that Moss and Carla Jean are actually the kind of people he’s supposed to be protecting. And in the end he decides he can’t do it.
“I always thought I could at least some way put things right,” Bell tells his wife. “And I guess I don’t feel that way anymore…I’m being asked to stand for something I don’t have the same belief in as I once did.”
She says she understands. Says, “You aim to quit while you’re ahead?”
“No ma’am,” he says. “I just aim to quit. I ain’t ahead by a damn sight. I never will be.”
There is a moment at the end of No Country where Bell pulls up to a crime scene and senses that Chigurh is there. It’s the only time Bell comes close to the bad guy. We expect a shootout. We expect a confrontation. A reckoning. But Bell backs out. He decides not to face the darkness.
I came across a 2008 sermon by a pastor named Jacob Jurado of the First Church of God in Rapid City, South Dakota, in which he discusses Bell’s dilemma. He sees Bell’s turning away as a complete failure. A failure to confront the evil of the world in the way we’re all morally obligated to do—Bell even more so because of his badge. And that’s the hard tragedy of No Country. It’s not the deaths of likable characters. It’s the turning away of the good Sheriff Bell. Our old Western heroes never turn away from a fight. They don’t cower in the face of evil, no matter how great. We would rather see our hero die fighting at the end of the novel, at the end of the movie, than put his badge in the drawer and hang up his old gun.
But it is hard to hold it against Sheriff Bell.
Edward Albee is among the many great artists the world lost in 2016. When I heard of his death, I remembered enjoying his play, The Zoo Story, in San Francisco years ago. I picked up this stage play as a way to include Albee in my ongoing reading of plays.
It’s the story of a well-educated family—parents and their teenage son—whose life falls into chaos when it’s revealed that the father, Martin, is in love with a goat. The play follows the structure of a traditional Greek tragedy (though that fact was lost on me, despite its allusion in the title). It examines the limits of what is socially acceptable. It pits rational arguments against irrational emotion in a context of complete absurdity. Albee’s dialogue is smart and funny, with Martin constantly undercutting the serious moments with moments of comedy (some of them unintended). The whole play is a testament to Albee’s mastery and his ability to balance weighty, universal themes with levity, shift from comedy to tragedy within the space of a few words and take the audience exactly where he wants them.
“My primary aim is not to convince you of a documented problem. My primary aim is to tell a true story about what that problem feels like when you are born with it hanging around your neck.” This is the greatest effect of Hillbilly Elegy, to walk away with an understanding, an empathy for the “white working class.”
I read this book before the election. And although it’s not specifically about the election, it has been said by many that this book explains the election results. It’s about the collapse of mid-size middle American towns and the desperation of white, working-class America. It’s about a loss of hope, a shift in values, a disintegration of crucial support systems—family structures and social networks. It is an empathetic yet harshly critical examination of working-class whites from someone who grew up and out of that world.
J.D. Vance was born in Jackson, a small town in Eastern Kentucky. Like most of Appalachia, it’s a poor area. Many residents live outside of the towns in the mountains. Most are descendants of Scots-Irish immigrants. It is an area that has been written about as a “culture of honor,” where family feuds are common, disagreements are often solved with violence or other means outside of the law.
When I was a senior in high school, I spent a week on a mission trip near Jackson, up “in the holler” as it was described. I sat in the living rooms of a family who was engaged in a violent feud with another family in the area. I saw the poverty first-hand, but I also experienced warmth, kindness and open hearts. Vance describes it as a place where everyone stops for funeral processions because, as his Mamaw says, “we’re hill people and we respect our dead.”
When he was young, his family moved to Middletown, Ohio, near my hometown. It is a mid-size industrial town, and like many industrial towns in the mid-west, was full of other transplants from Appalachia. Similar to the Great Migration of African Americans from southern agricultural jobs to northern factories throughout the 20th century, mid-western states experienced an influx of white workers from Appalachia as the coal mining jobs dried up. This white migration was nicknamed the “Hillbilly Highway,” and it transformed Midwestern towns small and large. Eastern Kentuckians settled in Ohio cities like Middletown, Centerville, Dayton and Cleveland. The migrants found work in steel, rubber, auto and other factories. But when those industries dried up, or those companies moved jobs overseas, these towns—many of them one- or two-factory towns—were gutted economically. All the standard companions of poverty followed. An increase in drug and alcohol addiction, a rise in crime, a decline in education standards, the disintegration of families and a loss of viable options all led to a loss of hope for many families.
Vance found a relatable description of these trends in the writings of authors like William Julius Wilson and Charles Murray. A great migration followed by the pullout of industry; the evacuation of the best and brightest, followed by the collapse of the community. It was the same story, just on a different timeline, in different cities, involving people of a different color. Wilson and Murray were writing about African Americans in towns like Detroit and Chicago.
Like many families in the faltering urban communities he read about, Vance and his sister grew up in a single-parent household. They were raised by his mother. She was a smart, capable woman, a high school salutatorian, but she got pregnant early and never attended college. Later in life, she fell into drug abuse and bounced from man to man. J.D. and his sister relied on their grandparents for stability. His Mamaw and Papaw played a critical role in his life, and he credits much of his success to them.
But as they provided crucial stability and a connection to traditional values, he saw the values of the community around him erode. He observed a rising consumerist culture—people buying things they couldn’t afford. He saw the feelings of isolation, the anger, the distrust. He saw people learning that they were helpless, that they had no control over the course of their life. All around him, people believed that their actions do not affect the trajectory of their lives.
To the contrary, his grandparents’ values were traditional—quietly faithful, self-reliant and hard-working. When J.D. once lamented having to work over a holiday weekend, his grandmother told him that she too wished he didn’t have to work over the weekend. “But if you want the kind of work where you can spend the weekends with your family, you’ve got to go to college and make something of yourself.” His Mamaw showed him what was possible: “…a peaceful Sunday with the people I loved—and [she] made sure I knew how to get there.”
J.D. eventually enlisted in the Marines, which reinforced the work ethic, discipline and self-reliance his Mamaw had instilled in him. In the Marines, “your destiny is in your hands.” From there he attended Yale on scholarship, where he learned to leverage his personal networks and got great advice from his then girlfriend and his professors, launching a law career.
The lessons he draws from his experience are many. Perhaps they are more novel because of the community he is speaking of—poor white folks—than the lessons themselves, but they are good nonetheless, applicable for communities across the economic spectrum. Chief among them is the importance of a solid, stable and consistent home life. When the nuclear family breaks down, the chance of a kid reaching his or her potential drastically reduces. Additionally, Vance contends that social class in America isn’t just about money. It’s about education and an understanding of what’s possible. It’s about confidence and vision, hope and aspiration. And it’s about the relationships you form, and the networks you can leverage to create opportunity.
Although Elegy has political implications, it’s less about politics than it is about a culture. Vance does weigh in on a few issues, though. He opens the book with the story of a guy who had a child on the way, yet squandered a good-paying job by being lazy. He describes a mindset that allows people to blame failure on outside forces, recalling an acquaintance he runs into in a bar who recently quit his job, then is later complaining on Facebook about how the Obama economy failed him.
He tells stories of people gaming the welfare system. He witnessed people using their welfare checks to buy cigarettes and liquor—a white version of the old “welfare queen”—and grew to resent that he was working hard to support his family, with taxes coming out of his paycheck, to support these people.
He discusses the perception that poor whites resent Obama because they’re racist. It’s not his race, he says. It’s Obama’s whole package that makes him feel like an alien, an outsider. To your average Middletown resident, Obama is “brilliant, wealthy and speaks like a Constitutional law professor…Nothing about him bears any resemblance to the people I admired growing up.” He is confident, urbane, worldly. And he came onto the scene just as people from Vance’s began to believe the modern American meritocracy isn’t for them.
But he blames conservative rhetoric for exacerbating the problem. “Instead of encouraging engagement, conservatives increasingly foment the kind of detachment that has sapped the ambition of so many of my peers…The biggest predictor of success is what one believes is possible for one’s life.” Yet the message of the political right is increasingly “it’s not your fault. It’s the government’s fault. The system is rigged against you.” Statistically, working-class whites are now the least hopeful demographic.
Vance touches on the importance of education as a way to create opportunity, but he sees limits to what the government can do to fix the problem. He recalls a debate over school vouchers in a West Wing episode. “It was striking that in a discussion about why poor kids struggle in school, the emphasis rested entirely on public institutions. As a teacher at my old high school told me recently, ‘They want us to be shepherds to these kids, but none of them want to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves.’”
The sharpest passage of the book, however, is a harangue against the culture of the people he grew up with. I’ll include most of it, because there is power in its length:
We spend our way into the poor house. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy, often leaving them full of garbage in our wake. Thrift is inimical to our being. We spend to pretend that we’re upper class, and when the dust clears, when bankruptcy hits or a family member bails us out of our stupidity, there’s nothing left over. Nothing for the kids’ college tuition. No investment to grow our wealth. No rainy day fund if someone loses her job. We know we shouldn’t spend like this. Sometimes we beat ourselves up over it, but we do it anyway. Our homes are a chaotic mess. We scream and yell at each other like we’re spectators at a football game. At least one member of the family uses drugs—sometimes the father, sometimes the mother, sometimes both. At especially stressful times, we’ll hit and punch each other, all in front of the family, including young children. Much of the time, the neighbors hear what is happening. A bad day is when the neighbors call the police to stop the drama. Our kids go to foster care but never stay for long. We apologize to our kids. The kids believe we’re really sorry. And we are. But then we act just as mean a few days later. We don’t study as children, and we don’t make our kids study when we’re parents. Our kids perform poorly in school. We might get angry with them, but we never give them the tools, like peace and quiet at home, to succeed. Even the best and brightest will likely go to college close to home, if they survive the war zone in their own home. ‘I don’t care if you got into Notre Dame,’ we say. ‘You can get a fine, cheap education at the community college.’…We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs. Sometimes we’ll get a job, but it won’t last. We’ll get fired for tardiness, or for stealing merchandise and selling it on eBay. Or for having a customer complain about the smell of alcohol on our breath. Or for taking five 30-minute restroom breaks per shift. We talk about the value of hard work, but tell ourselves the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness. Obama shut down the coal mines. Or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance. The broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach. We talk to our children about responsibility, but we never walk the walk…We eat Pillsbury cinnamon rolls for breakfast, Taco Bell for lunch and McDonald’s for dinner. We rarely cook, even though it’s cheaper and better for the body and soul. Exercise is confined to the games we play as children…
He goes on. The genius in this passage is the first person plural point of view. Only someone raised in such an environment can level such a critique. Imagine an outsider being so critical of any group. He is flat-out attacking their fundamental character. It makes me uneasy. But this is his group, his people, so he has every right to call them out. Whether his generalization is fair or not is hard to say, but his underlying point is that this issue is a cultural issue. Any solution will require a cultural shift. The government can help, but it can’t solve the problems of the white working glass. The biggest issue is the feeling of helplessness, the belief that the actions of the person are not tied to the outcome. That it doesn’t matter how hard you work—you’re still not getting anywhere. Social mobility is often framed in economic terms, but it also requires a move away from a certain set of values and beliefs.
Vance recently published an op-ed in the New York Times in which he writes about the empathy sorely lacking in American politics. He writes that Clinton and Trump occupy two separate countries. He says he predicted Trump’s nomination, and although he was surprised by Trump’s victory, he understands it. But he is very concerned about what it means for a country divided. He worries about a black friend whose kid suffered racial taunts at school. He is hopeful, if not optimistic, that Trump will “show as president the empathy he so often failed to show as a candidate.”
Although Vance is often critical of his people, what Hillbilly Elegy does is paint an empathetic portrait of the white working class. It has been lauded as prescient, a key to understanding the Trump victory. But it is powerful because it is personal. It is not a study, it is a story. And that can also be its weakness.
Hillbilly Elegy is mostly anecdotal. The danger lies in the assumption that because Vance can eloquently elucidate the plight of his people, he can also accurately diagnose the problem and offer solutions. That because he is of a demographic, he is qualified to solve their problems. He is a good voice to have, for sure—thoughtful, level-headed, reasoned, empathetic—but because he had his finger on the right pulse at just the right moment, Vance has been elevated as a spokesperson for the white working class. Not everyone is buying it. A recent review (written by someone who, like Vance, grew up in poor, white Appalachia) criticizes Elegy as “little more than a list of myths about welfare queens repackaged as a primer on the white working class.”
It’s clear that these are real problems, and that they’re getting worse. But it’s less clear what the solution is. Vance is a rare individual—against all odds he was able to rise above his class, make something of himself. But his message that poor white folks need to “buck up and take responsibility” will do no more than when an African American commentator says the same of failing inner city black communities. Yes, a strong nuclear family is key to success, and that cannot be legislated. That is a fundamental value, passed down over generations. But it is also true that families fail en masse in response to economic collapse and the societal ills that comes with it. It may not be a government program, per se, but there needs to be change in economy, education and opportunity so that hope can be realized. A revitalization of community will be required, and that relies on more than just a plucky attitude, determination and hope. We desperately need this in our failing communities of every color, so that there can be more J.D. Vances. What he has done is laid bare the needs of this oft-overlooked swath of America. They are not the only ones in need, for sure, but at least there is a conversation. Now the question is, what are we going to do about it?
This is a big book in many ways. A sprawling sci-fi epic (880 pages in hardcover—I listened to the audiobook, which was also daunting at nearly 32 hours) that deals with the end of the Earth as we know it. In the first act, a catastrophic event causes the moon to explode, creating a debris field that will, by all estimates, begin to rain down upon the Earth in the next few years. This “hard rain” will make the planet uninhabitable. It’s no small problem to solve.
The second act follows the rapidly dwindling band of multinationals who have been selected to carry on the human species in a network of orbiting space ships. And the third act skips ahead 5,000 years as the descendants of these survivors explore an alien planet—Earth—as the first steps toward repopulating it.
This isn’t a book I would have picked up on my own, but a friend recommended it. She said she couldn’t put it down. Another friend said he thought it was boring. I agree with both. A number of times I found myself frustrated by detailed descriptions of the architecture of the spaceships. I recognize it’s a part of the genre and contributes to the world-building, but even after overly long descriptions I couldn’t picture the shape of some of these vehicles, nor did I really care. Some of the dialogue is corny. And despite the length, I didn’t feel that invested in any of the characters. At times it just felt really long.
That said, the arc of the story is magnificent. Each act has at least one key moment that is grand and vivid and awesome. This is one of those books that I like more with time, as I’m out of the actual experience and the whole story is distilled down to the best parts in my memory. And I have to give Stephenson credit for really sticking the landing—no small feat for such an ambitious novel. No spoilers, but one of those grand, vivid awesome moments comes at the very end and takes the book from being about a group of people trying to survive to being about life itself. Not as in the life we live, but as in the existence of living things, evolution, survival, biology. Like I said, big.