I'm an unpopular figure among a certain swath of media professionals. Newspaper folks, mostly, or people who started their careers working for newspapers. They don't like me because I've spent a good chunk of the past decade arguing that it's bad when old establishment media folks coast on their reputation, credentials and presumed authority and that the old media companies are flawed to the extent they are unable to quickly adapt to new information or ways of thinking, causing them to roll forward on inertia.
In other news, the former Executive Editor of the New York Times has written a book largely about how new, online-based media is bad and irresponsible and will lead to the ruination of society. The book has been found to include multiple, significant plagiarized passages and a plethora of errors that were likely overlooked because the author was deemed too important and established to edit and fact-check. Meanwhile, the book's old school publisher is standing behind the author, saying it'll fix what can be fixed. It's hard not to see that as an admission that, plagiarism and errors notwithstanding, it's simply not practical or viable for them to stop publication at this point.
Last year I wrote a long true crime story that hit close to home. Like, really close to home: my great-great grandmother killed my great-great grandfather with an axe one snowy December morning in Detroit back in 1910. You'll be happy to know that she did this after my great-grandfather was born, thus allowing me to exist. Thanks for holding off on that, Nellie. I owe you one.
I had published all of this as a short ebook on Amazon and many of you bought it. Thanks for that! It's been out a while now, so I figured it was worth publishing the whole thing for free here, so here it is, in all of its dysfunctional family glory. Feel free to share it with family members who annoy you. It will really creep them out and, I suspect, treat you more kindly in the future.
If you paid $2.99 for the ebook and feel ripped off now that it's free, well, sorry. I'll make you a deal though: if someone important and powerful reads it and decides to option it for a Netflix movie or something fun like that, I'll invite you to the screening and/or buy you a beer at some point.
Tyranny does not arrive on our doorstep, fully formed, proclaiming itself as such. Evil does not wear a black hood and cape, monologuing about "the true power of darkness!" Such things come in increments. In drips and drabs, each drab appearing unremarkable due to its apparent innocuousness and each drip as normal and conventional, or at least described to us as such by our leaders or the media. Those who do evil are quite convinced that they are the good guys in their story and those who observe evil work extraordinarily hard, for a number of reasons, both consciously and unconsciously, to portray it as normal rather than aberrant.
We are, however, what we do not what we say we do. While there are many shades of gray in human behavior, that does not mean that there is no black and no white. Evil done under claim of righteousness is still evil.
As Hannah Arendt so compellingly observed in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Adolf Eichmann was an unremarkable man, not a mustache twirling villain. He told himself, every day, that what he was doing was fine because everyone around him acted as if it was fine, duly passing laws to validate his acts, obediently nodding their heads or turning their heads away as it was done. When he had misgivings about what he was doing he'd try to make up for it with a good act here or a good act there, telling himself that his balance sheet was, more or less in order. He did not believe he was evil because he never consciously chose to do evil as such and did not consider that there was a higher arbiter of morality than the people who passed the laws or gave him orders.
Morality does not work like that. We must examine that what we do and that which we support, vigilantly. We must ask ourselves more than "is what is happening legal?" or "is what is happening good for me?" We must ask, in broad terms, "is what I'm doing right, moral, ethical and just?" We must ask the same of our leaders and of that which is being done in our name.
I've spent a lot of time beating up on "Hillbilly Elegy" author J.D. Vance over the past year or so. My review of his book is here and some further stuff on him and his political writing is here and here, in case you've missed it. The short version of my beef with him: while his personal story may have been compelling enough for a decent memoir, he and others have attempted to use that personal story as disingenuous cover for an odious political agenda.
It's not a new political agenda, mind you. The gist of it involves blaming the poor and downtrodden for their misfortune, which has long been a talking point of the conservative establishment of which Vance, a Yale Law graduate who worked for a hedge fund in Silicon Valley for years, is quite firmly a part.
The twist is the use of Vance himself and his dubious hillbilly bonafides to provide absolution to anyone who would prefer to look away. "It's not your fault that poor people in flyover country are screwed," Vance has told both conservatives and liberals alike, "they've done it to themselves!" Upon being told that they all exhale in relief, content in the knowledge that they cannot do anything to help and thus cannot be criticized for turning away, their guilt assuaged because, hey, a hillbilly said it was OK for us not to care. It's almost genius, really.
As coastal elites have gotten off on Vance's guilt-free rural poverty porn, Vance himself has been plotting a political career. Now relocated to Columbus, Ohio, he strongly considered a run for the U.S. Senate in 2018. While he ultimately decided against that, he has surrounded himself with the sorts of advisors and donors, both in Columbus and nationally, who anoint political stars. He's writing Op-Ed pieces, spoken at political luncheons and has gone on the lecture circuit. It's the usual stuff a future candidate does.
Vance, however, claims that he has a particular problem for a Republican in middle America: he does not support Donald Trump and did not support him during the election. This "problem," of course, will increasingly be seen as a strength the longer Trump stays in office and the lower his popularity plunges. Vance, no idiot, knows this quite well and will likely continue to position himself as a Republican Party savior, seeking to take it back from the insane fringe that has taken it over in the past few years.
There's only one problem with that. He's buddying up to Steve Bannon, who is angling to get Vance installed as the next head of the conservative think tank, The Heritage Foundation:
J.D. Vance, the best-selling author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” a memoir about his upbringing in Appalachia, was also floated early in the process as a possible high-profile, younger recruit. He has met in recent months with Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist who has returned to his post running Breitbart News, and Bannon has privately expressed a desire to see an ally installed at Heritage.
You can endeavor to heal the nation of its Trumpist fever, or you can work with the leader of the alt-right agenda who parted with Trump because he wasn't extreme enough. Likewise you can work to elevate the voices of the overlooked people of poor middle America, as Vance has claimed over and over again that he desires to do, or you can fall in with Bannon, who has worked tirelessly to exploit these people into backing his twisted, white nationalist delusions. You cannot do both.
What J.D. Vance decides to do in this regard is his own business. It's a wonderful time for all of the rest of us, however, to stop listening to Vance and to stop believing he's some fresh new voice of reason who can bridge the vast political, cultural and social divides in this country. Because once you start taking meetings with a guy who blows up bridges and brags about doing it, you've opted out of the "bringing us all together" business.
UPDATE: I have some other ideas on politics and bringing people together. It's a decidedly more inclusive view of the world than whatever it is Bannon and, by extension, Vance is interested in pursuing.
I first came across Scott McClanahan's work in his 2013 "non-fiction lite" book, "Crapalachia." McClanahan's writing -- at turns immediate, clear, funny, affecting, raw and, above all else, alive -- grabbed me and would not let go. His novel "Hill William" followed in the same year, building on "Crappalachia," doing everything it did well, but raising the emotional and dramatic stakes. Within the space of months I had a new favorite writer.
It wasn't just McClanahan's prose that grabbed me. I was drawn to him because he was writing about a place I knew well, southern West Virginia, where he was born and raised and still lives. I grew up in Beckley and I still consider it home, even if I haven't lived there for a long time. West Virginia was a character in these stories, every bit as alive as the people who inhabit them, and as such these books felt something like home to me.
All of which made me worry when, soon after I read "Crappalachia" and "Hill William," I learned that McClanahan was writing a book about the end of his first marriage.
When I read his last two books I was still recovering from my own divorce. Like McClanahan and his first wife, my ex and I were both from Beckley. It's a small place and there were bound to be parallels in our respective stories. When I heard about his divorce book I was going through a period in which, no matter how well I was doing for long stretches, I could still be derailed fairly easily by a triggering memory or suggestion. Three or four years ago a book on this subject, set in that place, by a writer with McClanhan's gifts, seemed like more than I'd ever be able to handle. In fact, a small, selfish part of me even hoped it would never see the light of day and that McClanahan would move on to another project.
The last couple of years have been much better to me. I finally sloughed off the last bits of baggage from my divorce and, rather than get bogged down by old memories, I learned how all of it -- the good and the bad -- fit in the context of my life. I learned how to enjoy and appreciate what my life is rather than worry about what it is not or what it could've been if things had gone differently. Most importantly I got married again to a wonderful woman who did more than anyone to help me through it all. My life is pretty fantastic now. A book about a big messy divorce set in the hills of West Virginia isn't going to destroy me like it might've a few years ago.
McClanahan's "The Sarah Book," was published earlier this month after a long gestation. I'll never know how I would've received it in 2013 or 2014, but I couldn't be happier to have it now. It's a fantastic book, as raw and immediate as his previous work -- I devoured it in two sittings which could've easily been one -- but it possesses a greater emotional depth than anything he's written before. McClanahan has been described by some as an enfant terrible of independent publishing, but "The Sarah Book" is a work of a man maturing and growing. A book that could only be written by someone who has seen some shit, lived through it and learned something from it all.
Which is not to say that this is a happy and pat story in any way. The (I suspect only slightly) fictionalized story of McClanahan's divorce is not at all comforting. It's, above all else, about loss. And death. Not merely the formal loss of a lover through legal process or the figurative death of love or a marriage but about actual loss and literal death and about how all of the stories we tell ourselves and all of the parts we play in this life -- as husband and wife, among other things -- are, ultimately, meaningless. Indeed, he begins the book with this notion, giving the reader no illusions in its opening passage that it's about anything else:
"There is only one thing I know about life. If you live long enough you start losing things. Things get stolen from you: First you lose your youth, and then your parents, and then you lose your friends, and finally you end up losing yourself."
Sarah is a nurse and McClanahan constantly returns to the stories she'd tell him about patients who'd come through Beckley's ARH hospital where she works. Dead or dying people whose lives, for the most part, do not adhere to the conventional life and death narratives we're used to hearing in polite fiction. Scott and Sarah have an elderly dog who dies, and his death is not pretty or poetic either. Any effort Scott and Sarah make to impose some sort of sense on the end of their marriage backfires as well. Scott thinks for a time that the marriage can be salvaged, not because there is anything inherently salvageable in it, but because, dammit, that's how the story was supposed to go and how dare Sarah fuck with the ending? But as "The Sarah Book" goes on, McClanahan impresses upon the reader that, no, that's not how things go. Everything dies eventually. People. Dogs. Marriages. No matter what your plans for them happened to be.
Despite it all, though, it's not a sad book. At least it wasn't to me, because McClanahan shows us that, even if death is inevitable and entropy is undefeated, there are moments of grace to be found in life. Or, at the very least, moments when we can sit and appreciate that life is less of a drama than it is a brief period when we all just try to do the best we can and, sometimes, actually manage it.
Sarah can find humor -- and does, often -- even when life is bringing her to tears. Their children can find happiness being held upside down by their grandfather, even when their dad is falling apart. Scott and his friend Chris can find moments of joy even when both of them are at their worst. The elderly dog can experience one last good healthy piss on the way to the vet's office before his undignified end. Scott and Sarah can each find love again, with other people, even when it seemed like their divorce was the end of the world.
The final scene of the book features Scott and his new wife sitting down for burgers and fries with Sarah and her new husband with Scott and Sarah's kids in tow. After all of the drama of the previous 200 pages, life is all about slightly awkward conversation, french fries, ketchup on a mother's fingers and a three-year-old boy looking up at the sky at airplanes. Is it anticlimax or is it a clear-eyed realization that, no matter what goes on inside our heads and our hearts life, in all of its quotidian detail, goes on? I suppose one can take it any number of ways. But having lived through much of what McClanahan did in "The Sarah Book," I was happy to see it. Drama and pain can only sustain a person for so long and, since death and loss is inevitable, it's better to push that stuff aside as best one can and do as much living in the short time we have as possible.
"The Sarah Book" does a masterful job of chronicling the pain and drama of a divorce, but there is hope in it as well. We need to endure the former but acknowledge the latter, even when it seems impossible. Thankfully, we have someone as talented and insightful as Scott McClanahan as our guide.
Some people who take in interest in genealogy discover that they are Irish when they thought they were Scottish. Others find a long-lost cousin. When I began looking at my family history I found out that my great-great grandmother murdered my great-great grandfather with an axe on a snowy winter's night in Detroit, Michigan in 1910.
Nellie Kniffen's violent rampage and her husband Frank's grisly demise was front page news in Detroit for several weeks, but she and her crime were soon forgotten, both by the public and by her family. Those who remembered it tried hard to forget it and those who came after knew nothing about it at all.
Through research of public records, personal interviews and a review of the sensationalistic newspaper stories written before Frank Kniffen's body grew cold, I unearthed a chapter which had been torn out of my family's history. And I began to better understand the ghosts and demons which have haunted my family for over a century.
The story of Nellie and Frank -- Nellie Kniffen Took An Axe -- is available as a Kindle eBook for $2.99.
Today every urbanite's favorite faux-hillbilly -- J.D. Vance -- writes an op-ed in the New York Times about the health care system entitled "A Republican Health Care Fix." I've written a lot of words about this guy over the past year, but as long as people keep giving him platforms on which to share his vacuity, I'll be here to point out just how vacuous it is.
His broad point is not terrible. He thinks the recently stalled GOP health care bill is bad policy and bad politics and something better is needed. Not an earth-shattering argument -- everyone who is not Donald Trump or a Republican member of Congress agrees -- but give him points for saying it.
Beyond that, Vance is attempting, in his own Vancian way, to make a more salient good point: that there should be some sort of baseline of care for people and that no one in need of health care should have the hospital's doors slammed in their face simply because they're poor. While that should, again, not be a very tough bogey to meet, in this day and age it somehow is, especially for conservatives, so give him some points for saying that too.
The problem here, however, is the exact same problem he displayed in "Hillbilly Elegy": he completely misdiagnoses the cause of a real problem and, in doing so, ensures that any solutions for which he or his supporters would advocate are doomed to failure.
Vance's view of the problem: it's the government's fault that there is a health care crisis in America. He argues this by offering a simple-minded analogy about a pedestrian being hit by a government vehicle in order to make a broad "you broke it, you bought it" argument:
This is where the Republican Party hits an ideological barrier that it simply must power through before meaningful reform can happen. Yes, solving problems can be expensive, and yes, that money always comes from taxpayers. But that’s true when a government truck plows into a pedestrian. You break it, you buy it, and the logic applies equally whether the broken thing is an individual or a complex marketplace.
"The government broke health care" position is simply not true. There have been multiple books written analyzing why our health care system is expensive and, in many ways, broken. The uniform conclusion: that while some unique factors drive our costs up compared to other countries (i.e. the United States' unique position in drug research and medical innovation) most of the costs baked into the system are a function of administrative and marketing overhead unique to a for-profit healthcare industry, passing costs on to consumers.
We have a system which incurs massive costs for advertising, branding and the need for hospitals and doctors offices to bill dozens if not hundreds of different insurance companies in dozens if not hundreds of different ways. We have a system that delivers care to different populations via different programs and administrative means based on age, geography, financial status, ethnic background, job status and a dozen other factors, and each of those systems has developed its own infrastructure, raising costs through massive complexity. On top of that a cut is taken for profit. In light of all of this, Vance's premise -- the government broke our healthcare system! -- is exactly backwards.
At this point some might be inclined to say "Hey, Vance is not an expert in this area. You acknowledge that he cares and that he means well, so cut him some slack. He's talking about important stuff!" Sorry, not gonna cut him slack. Partially because Vance has political aspirations now and should not be allowed to get away with broad, misleading generalizing about pressing policy matters of the day. Mostly, though, I won't cut him slack for the same reason I didn't cut him slack for "Hillbilly Elegy."
In my review of that now famous book I noted that, as here, Vance meant well. And that, as here, he was talking about a very real problem: the myriad crisis facing people in rural areas and the working class at large. But just as he does here, he misdiagnosed the cause of the problem. He argued that the crisis is attributable to a lack of character and work ethic by those suffering from it. That the white underclass from which he rose is struggling so mightily because it is not taking responsibility for its own decay. That their moral failures, as opposed to economic challenges, were to blame.
The arguments in "Hillbilly Elegy" were utter hogwash. Hogwash, it should be noted, that adheres pretty closely to the views of the Silicon Valley venture capital class and from which Vance more recently hails and which would pass muster with GOP political leaders who will, eventually, be asked to aid his political ambitions. But more importantly, it's hogwash that stands in the way of solving the very problems Vance claims to care about.
If one does not acknowledge the external forces working against the victims of the 21st century economy, one can never hope to solve them. If one blames the victims of that economy, one can easily wash one's hands of them. Indeed, the prevalent opinion of people I know who have read "Hillbilly Elegy" and who are not personally familiar with rust belt or Appalachian life is "Those poor people. Their problems seem impossible to solve!"
In this "Hillbilly Elegy" is a work of absolution. It reassures its readers -- mostly coastal and/or urban-dwelling elites -- that they and the system which has benefitted them is not to blame for what's happening in places like Ohio and Kentucky. In turn it gives them license to look away after they've gotten their 272 pages worth of rural poverty porn, content in the notion that they cannot do anything to help and thus cannot be criticized for turning away.
His take on the health care system is no different. He cares. He claims that he wants things to be better. But by blaming the government for the problem he necessarily encourages readers to get behind market-based solutions which are actually responsible for the problem. Yes, he allows that the government should play some role in that, but his "you broke it, you bought it" framing ensures that that role should be limited and exercised only out of shame and guilt. After all, if you break a wine decanter at Crate and Barrel, you don't get to make decisions about restocking and inventory. You cut a check and, preferably, get the hell out of the store, never to return.
It's not unheard of for a patient to get better after a doctor misdiagnoses her condition. But it's not common, especially if, like the current state of the U.S. health care system, the condition is serious, complex and requires a lot of hard work to cure. It's also the case that, once a doctor has made a spectacularly wrong diagnosis, one should not go back to him the next time one gets sick.
Yet platforms like the New York Times continue to turn to Dr. Vance, under the delusion that he has insight and solutions. This despite the fact that, when it comes to public policy, J.D. Vance has already proven himself to be a quack.
Tonight I had the pleasure of meeting Brian R. Alexander, author of the new book "Glass House." He's a brilliant man who has written an extraordinarily important book at the exact moment it is most needed.
"Glass House" chronicles the downfall of Alexander's hometown, Lancaster, Ohio due to the downfall of Anchor Hocking Glass which, in turn, was due to the machinations of private equity and greed. It's a story about how one party to the Great American Social Contract -- big business and finance -- decided that it was more efficient to breach its obligations to the other party -- workers and the communities in which they live -- than to honor them.
Anchor Hocking was a Fortune 500 company which, along with some smaller yet still important companies, formed the backbone of Lancaster for close to a century. This partnership of business and community led Forbes to dedicate an entire issue to Lancaster in 1947, calling it "the quintessential American town" and the “epitome and apogee of the American free enterprise system.” The city was vibrant, the people were prosperous, the schools were strong and the sense of community forged by the shared goals of its corporate and private citizens provided the stability necessary to allow Lancaster's civic culture to flourish.
While the decline of industrialized cities like Lancaster in the 1970s and 1980s is now characterized by many as an inevitable fact of history, there was nothing inevitable about what happened to Lancaster. Glass manufacturing is not easily outsourced due to the fragility of the product, so it's not a simple matter of Anchor Hocking's business moving to Mexico or China in search of cheap labor.
Rather, Anchor Hocking fell victim to private-equity financiers like Carl Ichan and Cerberus Capital Management swooping in and milking the company for whatever cash they could, while providing nothing of value to the company itself, let alone the people of Lancaster. Ichan greenmailed his way to several million easy dollars. Cerberus leveraged Anchor Hocking to the hilt, bleeding it with fees and percentages via deals that thrust all of the risk on the company and its workers and none on the owners, all of which was encouraged by the deregulation of the financial industry and the perpetuation of "greed is good" culture of the Reagan years. Valuable assets were sold off and leased back at company expense, massive amounts of debt was incurred and pension obligations were not honored, all while the company's succession of owners raked in millions.
While Anchor Hocking continues to be a going concern, the effect of these machinations has been devastating for Lancaster. Most obviously in terms of the elimination of jobs, the reduction in salaries and benefits for existing workers, factory shutdowns and the elimination of pensions, all necessitated by the company's massive, unnecessary debt and the bleeding of its revenues by financial speculators and corporate pirates. The result: Lancaster's unemployment rate has risen and its underemployment rate has skyrocketed in the past 35 years. It's simply a poorer place than it once was for some very direct and very obvious reasons.
But it's also worse off for some less-than-immediately-obvious ones.
When new ownership came in, the entire management and executive class of Anchor Hocking was either fired or moved out of Lancaster to far away corporate headquarters, cutting a huge chunk of wealthy and educated citizens out of the civic fabric of the city. As Alexander notes, these people -- and their spouses -- were the ones who organized public festivals, led philanthropic efforts, served as elders and leaders in churches, took an active role in the PTA and spearheaded a large portion of the cultural initiatives of the city. They likewise formed a class of people who were prosperous enough to be able to participate directly in civic and government leadership out of a sense of duty as opposed to careerism, which has a way of encouraging ethical behavior. A healthy city in a capitalist system needs working people making good wages, but it also needs an executive and political class with a vested interest in the community. When the financiers moved in on Anchor Hocking and relocated the company's brain trust to places like New York and Chicago, Lancaster lost this practically overnight and its civic and political institutions have suffered tremendously.
The combination of economic suffering and the suffering of civic culture has waylaid Lancaster, Ohio. It has suffered from all of the obvious things associated with increased poverty -- crime, drug abuse and corruption -- but it has also suffered psychic blows which are harder to capture with statistics.
Alexander, who now lives in California, returned to Lancaster to write this book and embedded himself in his old hometown. He forged real friendships with people he met in local dive bars and in once-proud country clubs which now sell memberships for $100. He was no cultural tourist, treating the people he met as data points of subjects. He befriended them and talked to them and listened to their stories.
They are stories of hopelessness and aimlessness. Of financial struggle and of cultural and existential ennui. For 100 years, a person who grew up in Lancaster had an idea of what they might do with their future that allowed for the possibility of staying there. Now, those who do not abandon Lancaster after graduating high school find themselves wondering how they fit into their community and how their community fits in the world. Maybe they take a series of service industry jobs which require little of them and which do nothing to instill a sense of pride or meaning or commitment. Maybe -- after years of hearing politicians, both Democratic and Republican, who claim to care about them but who do nothing to follow up their lip service with action -- they simply lose themselves to disillusionment. Maybe they just buy guns and Oxy in order to feel safe or to feel nothing. Maybe, in desperation, they throw in with a charlatan like Donald Trump who promises to make things the way they used to be.
As every review of "Glass House" will no doubt note, Alexander contends with many of the same issues and themes as does J.D. Vance's bestseller, "Hillbilly Elegy." It's a logical comparison. Both are focused on small towns in Ohio which border on Appalachia. Both deal with social decline and decay, drug addiction, poverty and hopelessness. The differences between the books, however, could not be more stark.
Unlike Vance and "Hillbilly Elegy," which I reviewed a few months ago, Alexander and "Glass House" conclude that, rather than some ill-explained and spontaneous decision of working people to suddenly become shiftless and lazy, there are actual real, straightforward and understandable institutional reasons for Lancaster's decline. Vance, without any empirical evidence, views an entire swath of the country's problems to be attributable to a simultaneous moral failure on the part of millions of people. It's a view that, by shocking coincidence, absolves the sorts of investment banks and private equity firms for which Vance has worked of any responsibility.
Alexander, in contrast, makes a compelling and economical case that some very concrete causes led to real effects which flow logically from them. As a big fan of cause and effect over Vance's brand of magical thinking -- and as a bigger fan of assuming that people are rational actors and not lost souls, easily corrupted -- I fall SHARPLY in Alexander's camp when it comes to all of this. For what it's worth, he's also a much better writer who has seen much more of the world than has Vance and he comes off more intelligent and more empathetic than does America's latest literary and political darling.
Please, read "Glass House." Read it especially if you read "Hillbilly Elegy." Read it especially if you're a coastal liberal who nodded, uncritically, along with J.D. Vance's pablum as a means of assuaging your guilt about your ignorance of what has befallen middle America in the past few decades and felt that, by doing so, you were paying a proper amount of cultural penance. It's a better book that it better written and which has the benefit of making a boatload of sense where Vance's strains credulity every single time it strays from the memoir at its core. "Glass House" is not a simplistic fable like "Hillbilly Elegy." It's a smart, sensible, approachable and eye-opening book that treats a complex topic with necessary sophistication while treating the real human beings at its center with the respect they deserve.
"Glass House" does not tell us how to cure the disease which has infected American business and political culture, but it properly diagnoses it, and that's the essential first step.
It is Kurt Vonnegut’s birthday. My favorite book of his is “Mother Night.” It begins, in its very first paragraph, with its moral: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
Ever since I read those words, I have done whatever I can to live my life by them. I cannot think of a better time to revisit them than this moment in history.
At the prompting of a couple of friends, I recently read J.D. Vance’s memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy.”
It was a major mistake. Don't believe Vance's hype and don't believe for a second that you need to read this book to gain some deeper understanding of "real Americans." It's a simultaneous exercise in (a) shaming the working class as shiftless and lazy; (b) ignoring why their plight today is what it is; while (c) ignoring why, exactly, they resent so-called "cultural elites."
I love baseball so much that I turned it into my job. I love bourbon so much that I drink it like it’s my job. The drinking parts of baseball are pretty much owned by beer, so the two of those things don’t come together very often, but when they do I am about the happiest camper there can be.
I am midway through a fantastic new book by Reid Mitenbuler called “Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey.” It’s a bourbon history, basically. And so far a good one. My favorite part of it is that it is, in essence, a debunking. A debunking of the myriad myths surrounding bourbon, its history and its culture. About how those old frontiersman named on the bottle of your favorite whiskey had little if anything to do with it. About how hardly any of the stories about bourbon and its provenance are really true, even if you hear these tales on an actual distillery tour. Maybe especially if you hear them on a distillery tour.
“Bourbon Empire” is not a mean-spirited debunking by any stretch, however. Mitenbuler clearly has affection for his subject and the demystification of bourbon has led me to enjoy the two or three glasses of bourbon I’ve drank since I opened this book the other night even more than usual. There’s something uplifting about knowing the mess of history whence those glasses came. I’m a big fan of messes and chaos. Such things are far more amenable to the creation of great things than a neat and tidy order.
A lot of my baseball writing involves debunking the news and narratives of the day and a lot of my favorite baseball writing of others involves debunking baseball history, so this all has a natural appeal to me. Like bourbon’s origin stories, baseball’s origins were, for years, presented in as neat and tidy a manner as you could imagine. Baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday one fine afternoon. Or, if you don’t believe that, its rules were laid down by Alexander Cartwright. Or would you believe Henry Chadwick? OK, maybe we can’t agree on who the “father of baseball” is, but the idea that baseball was simply invented one day by some father figure is true, right?
Well, of course not. Baseball developed from any number of stick-and-ball games like rounders, bat and trap, and stool ball. The games which, over time, meshed together in important ways to form what we now know of as baseball. It’s a fascinating history, featured in a great documentary a few years back, which reveals that baseball wasn’t truly invented. Rather, it evolved like many other games, from some primordial common ancestor, probably in England, often due to pragmatism and random chance.
Modern baseball is likewise filled with neat and tidy tales. We don’t identify them as tales that often because they come to us in the form of news reports or commentary. But they’re tales. Whenever something can’t be sufficiently explained, fantasy is sprinkled on top of it in order to make it make sense. Sometimes that fantasy is old, unfalsifiable conventional wisdom. Things like a player’s “will to win” or “hunger” for success. Or his lack of fire, motivation or respect for the game. Sometimes people attempt to fill those empty spaces from another direction altogether. Analytics and sabermetrics which, though I am clearly partial to them, have their limits and are probably in need of some cosmic-level rethinking.
Such is the case with bourbon. It was born of a similar pragmatism. The availability of corn as opposed to other grains. The practicality of shipping it in barrels, which led to the serendipitous discovery of some interesting new flavors. The borrowing of distilling and aging concepts from other spirits like brandy and consumption and criticism habits regarding it from things like wine, even as the entire macho frontiersman gestalt of bourbon encourages a rejection of fancy-pants things like brandy and wine.
On page 52 of “Bourbon Empire” Mitenbuler quotes the author Julien Barnes in identifying everything you need to know about the marketing of bourbon. Specifically, that it can be characterized as:
“ … that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”
And so it is with so much that is written about baseball. Most people in my industry are content to fill up that empty intersection with bullshit or false, tidy narratives. Hey, if you don’t buy it, prove them wrong! If they’ll stop appealing to their place of perceived authority long enough to even listen to you.
The longer I write about baseball, the more I prefer to allow that intersection to remain empty. And, at times, messy. The world is sometimes empty and messy, after all. Why should baseball, bourbon or anything else be an exception?
Someone snagged some alcohol and took it, quite illegally, to where it shouldn’t have been taken. It wasn’t an impulsive crime of opportunity, however. It wasn’t someone knocking over the corner liquor store. This was planned. Planned by professionals who knew exactly what they were taking and exactly who would be drinking the illegally-obtained booze. And the people who would be drinking it would be paying top dollar for the privilege. Far more than the retail price.
Why? Because the alcohol in question was scarce. Not the sort of thing you could find just anywhere. Its scarcity is what made it valuable. Its scarcity likely even made it taste better to the folks who would eventually drink it. Better to them than it would taste to someone who drank from the same bottles obtained through legal means. Better than stuff that, objectively speaking, was not much different and may have in fact tasted better than the illegal stuff before its qualities were enhanced by the air of danger and intrigue which infused it with … greater complexities.
The booze in question: Coors beer. Obtained illegally by Burt Reynolds and Jerry Reed in the 1977 film “Smokey and the Bandit.” It was illegal to ship Coors east of Texas in 1977 and that illegality made it a highly sought-after commodity to Big Enos and Little Enos Burdette, who bankrolled the racket in order to get the stuff to serve, quite appropriately, at a banquet in honor of the winner of the Southern Classic truck rodeo in Georgia.
It seems preposterous now that the plot to the second highest-grossing movie of 1977 was set in motion by someone coveting Coors beer. Because, with all apologies to the good folks at the MillerCoors Brewing Company, Coors is kind of crappy. A mass-produced light lager that your dad probably drank because that’s about as good as he could do for the price and which you probably drank when you were in college because, Jesus, you didn’t know any better.
But drive the plot it did. Its believability as a McGuffin supported by its scarcity east of Texas. Its value supported by a small handful of wealthy men who used its scarcity and their ability to overcome it as a means of showing off to their friends. When the Bandit and the Snowman smashed their way through that last police blockade with that truck full of Coors and handed their haul over to Big and Little Enos, the retail price of their load didn’t matter a bit.
The same goes for another bunch of booze illegally swiped: 200 bottles of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon, stolen from the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky back in October 2013. Those bottles go for anywhere between $40 and $250 at retail but, because of their scarcity, can fetch over $1,000 in private sales. Some sales have netted as high as $5,000. And those are just the sales between friends and acquaintances on the so-called “gray market.” There’s no telling what they’d go for on the truly black market.
It’s not that Pappy is so much better than any other bourbon. Oh, it’s good. Thanks to a good friend with family near Lexington I was lucky enough to have some back before the bourbon bubble truly inflated. I enjoyed it a great deal. But it’s not hundreds of times better than the next best thing. It really can’t be.
All bourbon, in order to be bourbon, has to have a mash bill (i.e. the proportion of grains used in the fermentation process) of 51% corn. Up to that point, the stuff is all identical. It’s what makes up the other 49% that gives different bourbons their different tastes.
But here’s bourbon’s little secret: there are generally only three different taste profiles once you get past the corn:
Pappy Van Winkle is a wheated bourbon. It’s a good one, usually aged longer – 10, 15 or 23 years compared to the 3-7 years of most bourbons – but it’s still a wheated bourbon. Unless you’re in the bourbon industry and have tasted multiple different bourbons hundreds of different times as a point of professional purpose, you’re not going to be able to identify a great many bourbons by taste alone. it’s safe to say that the occasional bourbon drinker couldn’t tell the difference between Pappy and, say, Willett Pot Still Reserve, W.L. Weller or a Maker’s 46. After they’ve already had a couple, a novice bourbon drinker could probably be fooled with a bit of Old Fitz. Maybe even some of those occasional drinkers.
Yet there Old Pappy sits at the top of the bourbon pyramid, coveted, sought after and, yes, even stolen. Not because it’s so great but because the folks at Buffalo Trace produce only 1% of the amount of it as the folks at Jim Beam 70 miles to the southwest make of their white label bourbon each year. Because celebrity chefs like David Chang, Sean Brock, and Anthony Bourdain have conspicuously endorsed it. Because its annual release has been well-marketed as “Pappy-Day,” creating a land rush effect.
Of course, Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon is not unique in this respect. Simple economics suggest that the low supply of any product combined with its high demand will beget a higher price. But there’s something else going on with Pappy Van Winkle. There the low supply and great demand is baked into the price. It comes before the price is set. But then an after-effect of exclusivity washes over it where either the price or the overall scarcity of the product works to make people think it actually tastes better than it really does. Ask anyone who has been fortunate enough to drink some Pappy recently. They’ll tell you it’s the best they’ve ever had. Mostly because they’ve been fortunate enough to have it.
It’s not simple snobbery at work here, however.
Back in 2008 some Caltech economics professors conducted a study which found that changes in the stated price of a given wine influenced how good volunteers thought it tasted. But it wasn’t just an instance in which vanity and exclusivity entered into things. The lead researcher, Antonio Rangel, concluded that "prices, by themselves, affect activity in an area of the brain that is thought to encode the experienced pleasantness of an experience.” Put differently: the price tag on the wine bottle literally made the person drinking it think it tasted better.
Another product which, I suspect anyway, affects brain chemistry is In-N-Out Burger. Here it’s not about price. In-N-Out Burger’s menu prices are pretty low, actually. It’s really about exclusivity. As a result of the company’s obsession with quality control and its refusal to franchise, In-N-Out’s reach has been limited to five states: California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Texas.
My brother worked at an In-N-Out burger in San Diego for several years. He can vouch for the quality of their food. But the taste? It’s good. Quite good! But are the burgers better than Shake Shack? Five Guys? Any number of other burger joints across the country which use fresh, high-quality ingredients? Maybe a bit. Maybe a good bit if your palette is simply more amenable to the extra Thousand Island spread, mustard grilled patties, and extra pickles of an animal style burger. But it’s not so much better than the next chain down to justify the frenzy and the hype, is it? My brother grew positively sick of the stuff after six months and started taking his lunch breaks at the Del Taco across the street.
I’m a baseball writer, and an annual tradition among baseball writers is for the ones sent to Arizona for spring training to gloat about the availability of In-N-Out Burger to the sad, unfortunate baseball writers who have to cover spring training in Florida. Whenever I travel from Ohio to California to visit my brother, I’m always asked by friends if I plan to stop at In-N-Out before or after I go to his house. And there those celebrity chefs again – among them Thomas Keller and our old friend Anthony Bourdain – singing In-N-Out’s praises, stoking that perception of quality and feeding that demand.
I’ll leave it to Antonio Rangel and his colleagues at Caltech to parse all of that. But for now I will try to find “Smokey and the Bandit” streaming online and giggle anew at the fact that the whole damn thing was set off by Coors beer. And wonder whether, if and when there is a reboot of the franchise, Big Enos and Little Enos Burdette will send the Bandit after Pappy Van Winkle, In-N-Out Burger or something else entirely.
I wrote about home a couple of years ago. About what we consider to be our hometown and why. About how it doesn’t have to be where you live or where you were born but how subjective things – memories, emotions, one’s conception of oneself – can determine it. For a lot of reasons I said then that I considered Beckley, West Virginia to be my home, even if I didn’t move there until I was a teenager and even if I haven’t lived there permanently for over 20 years.
That’s been complicated for me in the past year and a half. Because my parents moved away from Beckley in he mid-90s, my strongest connection to the place came through my former in-laws who still live there. My wife and I would go back often. Her parents’ house was the closest thing I had to a childhood home. Christmas was there. Thanksgiving. Family gatherings, involving both her family and mine, over the course of 20 years. I came to think of that little house in the holler as my home and to think of her family as my own.
But when we split up I lost that connection. I still love my ex-mother-in-law. My ex-brother-in-law and his family. My wife’s aunts and uncles and all of their people. But they’re no longer regular parts of my life. I see my ex-mother-in-law once every few months when she’s visiting, but it’s nothing more than a hug and a hello through the passenger side window when they come to pick up the kids. Anything more would be awkward, in all honesty, so I can see how it really can’t be any other way.
I also lost the connection to southern West Virginia. I love it so and miss it dearly, but there’s no reason for me to go back there anymore. And there are a lot of reasons, mostly having to do with the maintenance of my mental health, to avoid it altogether. The past can be a difficult place for me these days. Even thinking about it for too long can derail me for a good while. In light of that, actually spending any real time in a place that is haunted by so many ghosts of the past is a terrible idea, no matter how important the place has been to me in my life.
Thank goodness, then, for Scott McClanahan and his book Crapalachia. A memoir of sorts – he’s called it “nonfiction lite” – it’s best described by its subtitle, “a Biography of a Place.” That place is Danese, West Virginia, not very far from Beckley, in western Greenbrier County, where McClanahan grew up. He tells of his life with his hypochondriac grandmother Ruby, his uncle Nathan who suffered from cerebral palsy and his friend Bill who, thanks to OCD, is constantly listening to “Dust in the Wind” and telling everyone the elevation of every surrounding hill.
McClanahan’s life and family in Danese are not a close approximation to my former life and family in Beckley, but there are enough intersections to make “Crapalachia” an exercise in safe nostalgia for me. He tells of a life of close connections to odd people, the likes of which he’s unlikely to ever know again. Stories of family members who worked in the mines. The weird mix of ancient mountain culture and 80s-90s cable television-driven pop culture which makes the place something less than old, something less than new and something altogether odd for a teenage kid in that place at that time. Eccentric people who might stick out in places like Columbus, Ohio but who were just part of the everyday in southern West Virginia. He name-checks the radio station I worked for. The K-Mart and the Captain D’s on Valley Drive. The kinds of places where I’d get beer and get up to no good when I was 16 years-old.
McClanahan says he wrote the book so he could remember these people and places. So he could document their existence and memory before they started to slip from his mind. But Crapalachia is more than just a personal document. His final chapter starts this way:
“My home was gone. So I decided to write this book. I tried to remember all of the people and phantoms I had ever known and loved. I tried to make them laugh and dance, move and dream, love and see … I put the dirt from my home in my pockets and I travel. I am making the world my mountain.”
I didn’t know McClanahan’s people but I knew people like his and I certainly knew his places. And like his home, my home is gone now too, at least for me. McClanahan talks constantly of ghosts in this book. I could feel my own ghosts swirling about me as I read it. It’s been years since I’ve read anything which resonated with me so deeply.
I write for a living, but a lot of things I write never see the light of day. Personal things. Bits of my history. Scenes in my life that I’m still trying to process and which I render in type so that I might go back to them one day when I am wiser and see if I can make better sense of it all than I can now.
I can’t explain the comfort I feel knowing that someone not terribly unlike me has done the same thing about many of the same sorts of people and places – ghosts, for all practical purposes – which haunt me still. And that he seems, from a distance, anyway, to have achieved some amount of peace about it all as a result.