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Hillbilly Elegy, Venom, Birds, Wrong Goodbye - Uncle Orson Reviews Everything

Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 26, 2017

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Hillbilly Elegy, Venom, Birds, Wrong Goodbye

When I first moved to Greensboro back in 1983, there was an employee at the company where I worked who grew up in the mountain country of western North Carolina. To me, that was merely a mildly interesting datum -- no more significant than if she had grown up in Raleigh or Ocean Isle.

But the person telling me this acted as if it were a huge deal, and she ended the conversation with a strict warning: Never, never call her a "hillbilly," or even say "hillbilly" anywhere near her, because she was very sensitive about it.

That was the first hint I had that hillbilly had any negative connotations. The only time I had ever heard the word used was in the title of The Beverly Hillbillies, that fish-out-of-water sitcom from the 1960s. The opening sequence always showed the Clampett family arriving in Beverly Hills riding in and on a truck laden with all their earthly possession, with Granny perched on a rocker lashed to the top.

From this I gathered that hillbillies were out of step with modern times, and from the theme song (come on, all you old people like me can sing it), I learned that Jed Clampett was poor and barely kept his family fed. But he was also called a "mountaineer," which to me meant, and still means, somebody who climbs, hikes in, and explores mountains.

I didn't realize then that "hillbilly" was somewhere between a social class and an ethnic group. Maybe even a tribe.

But it stuck with me, that warning not to refer to anyone as a hillbilly. Since I had never in my life thought of, let alone spoken of, any human being as a hillbilly, the warning was completely superfluous, and there was nothing about the employee in question that suggested her hillbillitude. She had a western Carolina accent, but so did a lot of other people, including some highly educated people and close friends.

In fact, there were times, even when I was teaching and intermittently living in Boone, that I thought the whole "don't say 'hillbilly'" thing was just part of the general insanity of the place where I had worked in Greensboro, and not a real thing at all.

But now that I've read Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance (in fact, I listened to the author do a superb job of narrating the audiobook), I understand it a lot better -- and I know that it's real.

Technically, Vance, a Yale-educated lawyer, did not grow up in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, but as he documents in Hillbilly Elegy, his clan's homeland was there, decades after many of them had been transplanted to the manufacturing city of Middletown, Ohio. There were so many trips back and forth that Vance and most of his kin thought of themselves as Kentuckians, no matter what their birth certificates said.

But what did being a "hillbilly" mean, in practical terms? For Vance, it meant ties to the land, a childhood in or near the woods, and familiarity with guns that were aimed at animals and at people. He had relatives who had taken part in the famous Hatfield-McCoy feud, and there were plenty of other feuds and fights if you missed out on the big one.

Conflict, even among friends and family, quickly escalated to violence, and some of the people in Vance's childhood were kind of terrifying -- except that to him, some of them were his protectors, and he counted on their violence to keep him safe. He learned to fight -- savagely, until complete victory -- from a young age, and he and his kind were known to be a rowdy, dangerous, ignorant, and uneducable bunch.

Alcohol flowed freely, and had a terrible destructive power in Vance's family. His mother's parents tore their own marriage apart during their child-rearing years, leaving Vance's mom to fight her way to adulthood through various marriages and relationships. Vance liked some of his step-dads better than others, and he has memories of good times with several of them, and with his father-by-blood as well.

But he also knew that no matter how much he liked any of these guys, there was little point in letting himself love any of them, or their own children, because whether there was a marriage license or not, Mother would see to it that the relationship broke up soon.

But there was no particular shame in this, as there would have been in the social class and ethnic group I grew up in, because among the hillbillies -- Vance's term -- of industrial Ohio and the Kentucky mountains, such short-term, high-conflict, alcohol-sodden marriages and liaisons were the norm.

What saved Vance and his sister was mostly their mother's parents, who, having wrecked their own family, were now at peace, with a constant promise to take the kids in when life with Mom and her men got too crazy.

And it did get crazy. Like the time when Vance, as a teenager, got into his mother's car, only to have her explain to him her intention to solve all her problems (and his) by running into a bridge abutment or some other unmoving obstacle at high speed. Some of Vance's narrow escapes from death at the hands of drunken, drugged, or insane relatives are harrowing to read about.

Yet there were also memories of love, of pleasure, and of pride in his heritage. Though he knew well the problems and weaknesses of his hillbilly tribe, he also knew himself to be one of them. Only gradually did he come to understand that it was possible for people who were married to be kind to each other.

In his experience, married people fought as if they meant to destroy each other. There was nothing so terrible it could not be said. Then he gradually came to know various good marriages -- including those of an aunt and of his sister -- in which arguments didn't ever turn into fights, and nobody was ever cruel.

He himself fell in love with an outsider whose family seemed idyllic to him. It took time and effort, but he not only learned how to be kind to his new wife, but also stopped getting into those savage fistfights with strangers whenever his pride was injured.

Now he records that the only peaceful marriages he knows of are those between one of his kind and somebody from outside. The pure hillbilly marriages remain hostile and, in his experience, unsustainable.

Growing up -- and even now, as an adult -- he experienced firsthand the futility of all the government problems that tried to address the poverty, poor education, and broken family life of the poor mountain people. Good intentions didn't change the fact that with only a few exceptions, government programs were powerless to change anything, and often did more harm than good.

For instance, even when he feared for his life at his mother's hands, Vance testified falsely in court that she never hit him or his sister -- because if Mom were convicted of something, then whether she went to jail or not, she would lose custody.

No, her kids did not want to live with her. But they knew that if Mom lost custody, the government would assign them to foster homes, and in that time and place, the foster parents would have to "qualify" by standards that their grandparents did not and could not meet. In order to stay with Mamaw and Papaw, in order to preserve their ties with the mountain culture, they had to officially remain with Mom, and then escape to the grandparents' house whenever things got too scary.

What Vance didn't seem to know was that many aspects of his "hillbilly" childhood spread across social classes, even if the problems don't seem to be so pervasive in other groups.

I grew up in a home where everybody lived in fear of provoking -- or simply being present for -- one of Mom's rages, which were treated as a force of nature. The person who triggered such a rage was shunned by the siblings as if he had caused a tornado or tsunami, and these attitudes and fears continued far into adulthood.

Yet we also loved that tsunami and rarely blamed her or expressed any resentment for the way she deformed our lives -- even though we all knew that she could control her rages whenever she bothered to try, since the rage switched off the moment it seemed that some outsider might witness it.

Shame was a far stronger motivator for her than love or mercy, yet at my mother's funeral, those rages went unmentioned while her other, undeniable gifts were extolled to the point of sainthood. So, like Vance, I know what it means to live in constant dread of family conflict, and, again like Vance, I struggled not to pass that legacy on to another generation.

Isn't that the best we can do, really: try to make things better for our children than they were for us? I'm always a little saddened by people who, politically or within the family, think that poverty is the cause of the problems and therefore money will be the solution. In fact, poverty is as likely to be the result of family conflict, and the way to achieve financial security is to rise out of the social habits that tear families apart.

That's something government can't do. It's something that impoverished, conflict-ravaged tribes must struggle to achieve for themselves. Meanwhile, many government poverty programs merely subsidize the alcoholic madness. Yet that government money helps children survive long enough for some to get free.

J.D. Vance's book, despite the fact that it chronicles so much pain and failure, is filled with love and nostalgia. Vance had a few helping hands along the way, as he did the seeming impossible and rose out of that desperate culture to become a lawyer and, now, a "principal at a leading silicon Valley investment firm."

Hillbilly Elegy is a bittersweet love song. I was enthralled and emotionally involved every step of the way. Even if you have lived an idyllic, conflict-free life, this book will have great value because so many people that you know and so many strangers you hear about on the news are caught up in just such patterns of rage, madness, and fear in their home life.

Hillbilly Elegy also offers hope that children can grow up and escape from these destructive patterns, and assures us that acts of kindness and protection within a maelstrom of rage can have a saving influence on children and adults alike.

This book is so candid that I can't help but imagine that some people in Vance's life must resent him for writing it. But I can't help but believe that most of his fellow hillbillies will be, at some level, grateful to know that they are not alone in their experiences, and that a person of achievement, education, and compassion has exposed their darkest tales to the light of day.

*

In Michael Connelly's newest -- and, I believe, most emotional and moving -- mystery novel, The Wrong Side of Goodbye, detective Harry Bosch no longer works for the Los Angeles Police Department. Having sued the department, he has acquired the resentment of many cops and administrators, but in the town of Pasadena, its independent police force has no such feelings. There, Bosch is helping out as a kind of temp, with a badge but without a salary.

Meanwhile, he's trying to make a go of his new business as an independent private investigator, and it's in that capacity that he's invited to the home of a reclusive billionaire and given a highly secret assignment. The old man never married and has no known heirs, so his multi-billion-dollar holdings are going to fall to his corporation, whose administrators will have free rein over the money and the enterprises -- including the ability to set their own salaries.

The trouble is that the dying old man did fall in love in his youth, and though his father prevented him from marrying the girl, she might have born his child. Now the old man wants Bosch to find out if he has any living heirs. He dies before Bosch can find definite answers, but shortly afterward, Bosch receives in the mail a new will, naming Bosch as executor. The will gives everything to the old man's descendants -- whom Bosch has now found, but who may not be willing to accept the life-changing money and the court fights likely to come along with it.

It's fun to watch Connelly bring Bosch's half-brother, the Lincoln Lawyer immortalized in Connelly's other series and by the movie starring Matthew McConaughey. And there is another mystery going on at the same time -- the Pasadena police departments effort to identify and stop a serial killer. Most of the physical danger to Bosch and his friends comes from that regular police work, and when the case is solved, the work on the dead billionaire's estate seems almost anti-climactic.

But it isn't, in part because, at its heart, The Wrong Side of Goodbye is a story of undying if unrequited love, with personal tragedies whose scars can't be healed by great wealth.

If you've never read any Michael Connelly, it won't matter -- though this is a late entry in a long series, it contains all the information you need to know in order, not just to follow, but also to care deeply about the story being told.

*

Speaking of caring about detective stories, I have to say that the new TV series Lethal Weapon has moved far beyond being an echo of the Mel Gibson-Danny Glover movies. The most recent episode I've seen has plenty of adventure and plenty of detective work, but it is also a story so personal and emotional that I actually had to watch the denouement twice and was even more moved the second time.

Clayne Crawford has completely emerged from Mel Gibson's shadow in his role as grief-maddened Martin Riggs, while Damon Wayans, as Roger Murtaugh, is as funny as he needs to be -- while also making us believe in and care about his character.

I had no high opinion of the Wayans brothers from any of their comedic work. The other night, though, I came across on late-night cable a determinedly second-rate movie from twenty years ago called Bulletproof, which I imagine was promoted as an Adam Sandler-Damon Wayans comedy. This is a combination I would have tuned out immediately, so I never saw it in the theater.

However, I suspect that even if I had, I wouldn't have enjoyed it as much as I did on TV the other night. This is because in the theater, I would have had the cheap-laugh expectation that comes with Sandler and any Wayans, while Bulletproof was filtered through my memory of having just seen Damon Wayans do an effective job of believable dramatic acting in Lethal Weapon.

And I suspect Bulletproof was a bit of a box-office flop because, while Adam Sandler is funny, he's not funny in an Adam-Sandler-movie way. There's no hint of Little Nicky or The Waterboy in this -- rather, Sandler plays it pretty straight, almost to the degree of his performances in Punch-Drunk Love and Spanglish, arguably his two best films so far.

Am I recommending Bulletproof? Oh, not really. As a late-night cable find, it was good enough to keep me watching to the end. But I wouldn't invite friends over to watch it together.

Speaking of late-night movies, I recently caught most of Sixth Sense. I've grown so cynical about M. Night Shyamalan movies, what with so many of them seeming to be stolen from the work of uncredited and unpaid novelists, that I had forgotten how brilliant Sixth Sense was.

The big surprise about the shrink played by Bruce Willis has overshadowed the deep storytelling about Haley Joel Osment's life as a "weird kid" with a desperately worried mother, and about the individual dead people he is able to help and set free. Some of those stories are such weepers that the revelations about Bruce Willis seem almost like afterthoughts.

Sixth Sense is worth pulling off your shelf of DVDs or streaming from one of the services, because it holds up surprisingly well after all these years.

*

I recently reviewed The Hidden Life of Trees, an excellent entry in the growing genre of Books About Science By Scientists. Since the author of that book was an experienced forester and tree scientists in Germany, his book was full of personal anecdotes and observations that helped bring cutting-edge science to life.

Another entry in that genre is Venomous, by Christie Wilcox. It suffers from the serious drawback that venomous animals come from among so many different kinds of creatures that the only similarity that Wilcox can really get into is the effects of their poisons on people.

There are fascinating speculations on why some species are harshly venomous, while genetically close kin have no venom at all, with the tentative conclusion that many were descended from a venomous common ancestor, while some or many of those descendants no longer needed to pay the enormous biological cost of producing venom.

The result is that even though there wasn't a coherent saga as in The Hidden Life of Trees, Wilcox was able to keep me fascinated with her anecdotes about real people -- including herself and other scientists -- who ran afoul of some of the creatures they worked with.

The only actively boring part of the book was the long time that was spent on the insane people who deliberately dose themselves with various venoms, either to promote their own immunity or tolerance to the venom, or in order to get the reputed "high" that venoms are (probably falsely) rumored to supply.

I'm not interested in reading about people who put harmful substances into their body without need, any more than I care about the stories of bungee jumpers and rock climbers. What such people have in common is that for no better reason than private thrills, they risk death -- and also risk the lives and waste the time of the people whose job it is to rescue or heal these needless risk-takers.

Overall, though, I found the entire book fascinating, especially when Wilcox tells us about the worst venoms and the strangest creatures to have venom.

As an added bonus, I had downloaded Venomous from Audible.com without noticing who the narrator was. So imagine my surprise when the narrator's voice sounds strangely familiar and it finally dawns on me that it's my own daughter, reading under her married name, Emily Rankin.

I knew she was very good at her work -- but in this age when Audible (a subsidiary of Amazon) is cutting out the producers and directors who used to assure high quality, she did something that is almost vanishingly rare. In a book that required the narrator to say dozens if not hundreds of complicated, unfamiliar, hard-to-pronounce scientific terms, she went to the trouble of learning how to pronounce them all exactly right.

Contrast this with the narrator of the next book I'm going to review, who pronounces the word mammalian repeatedly as "mammilion," to rhyme with billion. There are so many egregious and easily prevented mispronunciations in audiobooks today that the standards have sunk almost as low as the standard of editing and proofreading in the world of printed books and, for that matter, magazines and newspapers.

There are no such problems in Venomous, so that even when the book itself has some tedious moments, the narration is good enough always to carry us through.

The science-by-scientists book I'm just finishing is The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman (audiobook narrated, with mispronunciations, by Margaret Strom). I assumed that the title used the word "genius" in its most ancient sense, as the inborn spirit and inspiration of a person or group.

But no. Ackerman's book is a radical revision of traditional views of bird intelligence. She tells about how the old bias that has long disparaged birds -- giving rise to negative terms like "birdbrain" -- is scientifically wrong, and always was.

In the early days of taxonomy and evolutionary science, there was a strong bias toward looking at humans as the pinnacle of evolution -- nature's finest achievement. Since our intelligence seemed to be seated in the six-layer, multi-folded cerebral cortex, the fact that birds' brains completely lacked that organ was taken as proof that birds were no smarter than reptiles.

Even when birds were found to be descended from dinosaurs -- along with recent discoveries showing that the family of dinosaurs that gave rise to velociraptors and birds all had feathers before any of them could fly -- that assumption about their stupidity continued in the minds of many scientists.

But alongside that bias were the many cases of birds that showed creative, problem-solving intelligence that equalled anything achieved by mammals, including near-human primates like chimpanzees and orangutans.

The smartest birds, like the corvids (crows and ravens), had brain sizes vastly greater than the one-trick birds like pigeons, which specialize in navigation and remembering vast numbers of food-storage caches. So something was going on in bird brains that raised many of them far above the stereotypes of bird dumbness.

Thus George R.R. Martin's use of ravens instead of pigeons as messenger birds in his Game of Thrones series now seems exactly right. I'm betting that when he made that artistic decision, Martin was keeping up with the science of bird intelligence better than I had.

Serious scientific investigation has shown that bird and mammalian brains used different strategies and structures to achieve very similar ends. Some birds are able to work out complicated, multi-step problems -- and when they do so, unique structures in their brains achieve those intellectual feats in exactly the way the cerebral cortex does in mammals.

Of course, not all birds are equally smart, though almost all of them are smarter than people used to think. When you think about it, there should be at least as much variety and difference among birds as there are among mammals -- after all, there are twice as many different bird species as there are species of mammals.

Nor should we expect a lot of bird solidarity. After all, it would be hard to make a case that predator mammals show any sign of fellow-feeling with other mammals -- only a few people reject shoe leather because it comes from another "mammal like us."

So birds prey on, deceive, and exploit each other as mammals do. And, just as mammals in time of drought seem often to form truces at the few watering holes, so also in winter we find widely divergent bird species forming "feeding flocks," taking turns at the bird feeders in our yard, even though during the summer they don't get along at all.

I have often observed birds diverge from what their heredity supposedly requires of them. Our "worm-eating" bluebirds usually go straight to the sunflower feeder; only after some serious dining there do they bother with our worm feeder. Likewise, woodpeckers take their turn with the sunflower chips right along with visits to the suet feeder they're supposed to specialize in.

Birds adapt, and adaptation often requires, or at least rewards, clever, oversized brains. The brains of birds have to be small, because they can't afford to be weighed down by a heavy blood-sucking organ like our human brain. Nor can they afford heavy bone structures to protect the brain.

Yet the anatomy of bird brains and skulls are perfectly adapted to their needs, and while their brains never compare with the sheer mass of human brains, it isn't mass that counts. The best science shows that it's the number of neurons and synapses that matter, and in that area, the brains of birds compare much more favorably with mammal brains.

The Genius of Birds is, in its own way, as revelatory as The Hidden Life of Trees. Not every scientist is a good writer, but Ackerman is, and while she doesn't have the terrifying anecdotes that we find in Venomous, her book is full of stories of the achievements of birds, both in and out of the lab. I find that my longtime fascination with and admiration for birds is fully justified -- they really are smarter than anyone has been giving them credit for.

So to my neighbors whose collared cats are allowed to roam free, and who lurk in our yard because to them our bird feeders are a smorgasbord, I hope you won't mind when I protect my property from your murderous pets by whatever means it takes. The birds they kill are as valuable to me -- and as high in the evolutionary ladder -- as your cats are to you. When you let your cats roam free, you make them my lawful prey as soon as they trespass on my property.

Birds aren't stupid creatures that it's OK to kill, like mosquitoes or roaches. They're smart, they have fascinating lives, and on my property I want them safe from subsidized killers like cats. Consider yourselves warned; if Puddy Tat doesn't come home one of these days, who can say but what a consortium of crows, along with the occasional human ally, has eliminated a feline serial killer?

*

Last week, my friend Rusty Humphries told me about a new musical on Broadway called Dear Evan Hansen. It's so new that the original-cast album has not yet been released, though you can download from Amazon one song, "Waving Through a Window."

From that song, I gather that this is a traditional Broadway score -- at least I hope that it's uncorrupted by modern pandering to rap, hip-hop, or other annoying tastes. The song is gorgeous.

The plot is strange -- teenager Evan Hansen, on the advice of his therapist, has written a letter to himself, but when another teenager, Connor, also a senior at the same school, dies, that note is found in circumstances that make it seem to be from Connor to Evan.

Connor's parents seem to take so much comfort from their dead son's supposed letter to Evan, that Evan, motivated by compassion, writes more letters to himself, pretending that he and Connor were close friends.

I have no idea where the story goes from there, because I haven't seen it yet. Rusty has seen it, and seemed quite impatient with me for not knowing anything about it when we talked on his radio show last week.

I can assure you and Rusty that my wife and I are trying to work out a plan to get tickets to this new hit show -- but I thought I'd tell you about it even before I see it, so that you, too, if you're a Broadway theatre-goer, can start your ticket quest relatively early.

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