Savage Harvest by Carl Hoffman unravels the mystery behind Michael Rockefeller's death in Dutch New Guinea in 1961. You might have heard in passing the story about the primitive art collector who was eaten by cannibals; I thought it sounded kind of halfway familiar, at least. This is that story.
Michael Rockefeller was just out of college with a plan to take a year or so off before whatever lucrative future awaited a Rockefeller when he decided to pursue his passion of collecting so-called primitive art in Dutch New Guinea — now that part of Indonesia on the same land mass as Papua New Guinea. Art had been a Rockefeller family passion, and, as it's portrayed in Harvest, this new focus on the art of so-called primitive ("primitive" appears so much that it starts to weigh on you) people fit into an avant-garde early 1960s movement — the idea being to place the folk art of primitive people without context in a modern art setting, allowing the viewer to experience it in a visceral way, unmoored from preconceived notions and cultural expectations. It's a cheerily idealistic view of human culture that also happens to be nauseatingly paternalistically outdated.
Savage paints Michael Rockefeller as emblematic of this archaic relationship between the West and whatever else. That in itself is a fascinating time capsule. The arrogance of parachuting into a far-flung so-called backwater (a lot of things become "so-called" in this kind of story) and flashing a lot of cash for sacred objects that are meant to be consumed in the most sterile manner possible in Midtown Manhattan almost makes you want to root for the cannibals.
To that point: Savage Harvest opens with the story of Rockefeller getting eaten by cannibals. The brief opening chapter is Rockefeller setting out to shore after his boat capsizes. The brief second chapter details the cannibalistic ritual itself, with specific people named spontaneously deciding to kill and eat Rockefeller after he washed ashore. The second chapter is grisly, gruesome and brilliant — jarring and upsetting and unforgettable.
It's an interesting rhetorical move, which sets up the story and tips off the ending. Much of Savage is about the cat-and-mouse game between the author and modern-day subjects, and Hoffman's quest in trying to pin down some specifics about Rockefeller's deather, for while it's assumed he was eaten, it was never proven, and the Rockefeller family (and Dutch and American governments) were apparently happy to assume he just drowned trying to make it back to shore. For most of the book Hoffman gets nowhere trying to confirm the headhunting story. He returns home at one point, then regroups and figures out a way to find out the truth. In short, the mistakes he made initially were the ones Rockefeller himself made: parachute in, ask a few questions, leave immediately. The final time he goes he spends a month living there and eventually surmises that, yes, it probably happened the way people assumed it happens.
There's a lot of first-person this or that in there: the entire structure of the book switches back and forth between his current research and telling of Rockefeller's story; it goes chapter by chapter, with dates at the headers. The lack of good research material drives this — interviews go nowhere, which Hoffman explains, which becomes part of the story. And the subtle ending — which is really, really subtle, because he doesn't really get anyone to confirm that anyone ate Rockefeller but kind of sort of does, which, between that and the forensic evidence (or lack thereof, as counterintuitive as that sounds) is basically convincing.
Now, eventually the question becomes, Who cares if Michael Rockefeller was eaten by cannibals? Fair enough. It's an old mystery, for one, which is not the worst reason to track down the truth. But to me, the negative space is what becomes compelling here. And by "negative space" I mean the reasons that no one wanted to figure out the truth inform the reason it became a mystery in the first place. Hoffman does a great job contextualizing the silence that persisted over the years. One, Michael Rockefeller was a very big deal — an American governor's son getting eaten by cannibals is a big deal, but son of a governor who also hails from like the richest family in the world (or some such) is a very big deal. At the same time, the Dutch government was in the middle of process of handing over Dutch New Guinea to Indonesia, and was keen on proving that they weren't just walking away without any supportive institutions. You can see why they'd want this quiet. The Rockefeller family itself seemed to want to conclude that Michael died by drowning. Then there's the American interest in keeping governments in the region away from the Soviets — and therefore wanted Indonesia to quickly see Dutch New Guinea see independence (with Indonesia). Every actor in the story — including of course the ones who ate Rockefeller — seems to have benefited from a cone of silence about this story. And so it was for years, until Hoffman kind of got sort of good proof that what people assumed happened actually happened.
In short, a blunt-force (literally, I guess) story that becomes subtly layered. Not totally satisfying an ending, but props to Hoffman for getting the ending he got, and feeling comfortable enough to go with that.
I actually kind of love the word "Bildungsroman," though I don't understand why it's capitalized. It just sounds pretentious as fuck but you know it just doesn't give a fuck. Plus, it's basically anchored with the word "dung," or at least I like to think so.
I hadn't read Demian since at some point in high school, and definitely didn't remember much about it. Then I started reading it and vague memories started flooding back: weird MILF-y characters (the concept of the "MILF" not being something we knew about back then [googling: yup, seems more recent]), Sprockets-like affectations, and then ultimately this superweird repressed undercurrent a little later on (in fact, this brought up some adolescent PTSD — I remembered lines like "You practice continence, too, don't you?" and was transported: what in the fuck were these people thinking?).
Suffice it to say, then, as now, I don't think I "got" that Demian was — duh! — Sinclair's older, wiser self. I think I was too busy perseverating on the character of "Pistorius" and thinking "Oscar" . . .
J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy is a taut, intriguing, engaging memoir of sorts that seeks to get America woke about the issues (felt like going for that overused word "plight" but pulled back in spite of my heady topic sentence laziness) of the white working class of the Rust Belt. "Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash," Vance writes. "I call them neighbors, friends, and family."
This is a buzzy moment for such an inquiry, and obviously why a lot of reviewers and pundit-y folk glommed on to this buzzy book. That's all germane and good, but in the end the stuff you really take with you revolves around living in or near poverty with and around addiction, abandonment and abuse. That said, Vance definitely delivers with context and detail about how and why the hillbilly came to be, along with generous personal details and anecdotes therein. His tone is by turns vulnerable, guileless (in a good way, if you can imagine what that might read like), humble and magnanimous (which might be why he can seamlessly drop references to semi-controversial figures like Charles Murray and Amy Chua in there and keep you nodding along; among our group this tack worked less well with his Times op-ed that came out right around when we met).
When it comes to Elegy, Vance's tone, as a messenger — and I can't emphasize this enough — is pitch perfect. He says he holds onto a sort of culturally preordained short-fused temper, but you read the book and can't believe it. As buzzy as it is, nothing about it seems of the moment, which is a very, very good thing.
Which is to say Vance is intuitively or by design a perfect guide to this world he sets out to describe. And you may surprise yourself as you begin rooting for the focus of Vance's story, his grandmother Mamaw. Perhaps you would be inclined to read Mamaw (pronounced "ma'am awe") as a foul-mouthed vindictive kind of abusive fucking shotgun-toting piece of redneck-hillbilly-white trash, and that's probably mostly accurate, but she's also Vance's moral center and, as a child, the best thing he has going for him. Plus, she's fiercely protective ("fiercely" being a lazy fucking adjective, I know) and, when not espousing vigilante justice (which is just kind of a thing that happens), seems like a really decent person.
The book's best Mamaw anecdote (page 97-98) is hilarious, shocking and insightful at the same time: after seeing a fire-and-brimstone preacher on television, Vance — at age 8 or 9 — worries might be gay because he dislikes girls and has a best friend who is a boy. He confesses to his grandmother that he might be gay. "Don't be a fucking idiot," she begins before asking him whether he wants to "suck dicks." Of course not, he says. "Then you're not gay. And even if you did want to suck dicks, that would be okay. God would still love you."
It's a great anecdote — and it has to be true, because if this cringe-inducing yet brilliantly effortlessly tolerant life lesson didn't happen exactly like Vance says it did, then it undercuts the portrait of Mamaw. Not that I think he's making up stuff, but if he were, it's the kind of detail I'd want to have made up. And maybe I'm reading a lot into it, but his transparency-positive disclaimer in the introduction — "I am sure this story is as fallible as any human memory" — seems a little self-protecting. And I only note this because I don't want it to be so . . .
A sort of debate broke out at book club about whether Hillbilly was somehow making the case that the Scots-Irish that settled in the middle part of the country were somehow so special. Very much to the contrary: Vance's take seems more that the redneck-hillbilly-white trash is the socially acceptable path to begin a national conversation about the role of personal responsibility (or whatever you want to call it) for everyone of any race, color or creed. And if not an all-out path to a conversation (so bold — a conversation!) then at least a lens into the underclass that doesn't get tripped up on matters of race, especially. Basically, who gives a shit about offending redneck-hillbilly-white trash? Thus the glib title, in my opinion . . .
Oh, and then in the introduction Vance explicitly writes, "I do hope that readers of this book will be able to take from it an appreciation of how class and family affect the poor without filtering their views through a racial prism." I think I called it a Trojan horse, but that didn't feel right at the time. Suffice it to say, it seems pointed. Since we read this there's a great SNL skit that explores this exactly (and has the added benefit of everyone being in on the joke):
All that aside, Elegy is at its strongest and most pointed when Vance talks about growing up in a family full of addiction, abuse, neglect and the general precarious line between the fraught zone straddling the middle class, working class and poverty. He explains — from his firsthand perspective — the pathology of feeling like you're "taking advantage" of people (Page 104: "We were conditioned to feel that we couldn't really depend on people — that, even as children, asking someone for a meal or for help with a broken-down automobile was a luxury that we shouldn't indulge in too much lest we fully tap the reservoir of goodwill serving as a safety valve in our lives" — if you've ever scratched your head about someone you know who exhibited similar behavior, it's painful to finally hear this explained in full). Elsewhere, the concept of a "nice Christmas" (page 250).
I've never read Dreams of My Father — memoirs by aspiring elected officials being probably the least likely thing I would ever read, just behind Miranda July novels and just ahead of Jonathan Safran Foer's treatise on vegetarianism — so I'm going way out on a limb here, but I wonder if someone somewhere — even if it's not Vance himself, because he seems like a decent guy who wouldn't do this — sees Elegy as a white working class counterpart (complement?) to that book. The thing feels pitch perfect in that way — heartfelt and mildly/subtly policy oriented. Shit, I'd probably vote for the guy — as long as he didn't grope a bunch of people, that is. And if you thought my comments on the "sucking dick" thing above were nitpicky, this is where I'm coming from.
To that point — and again, maybe I'm just overthinking it — but after learning 200-some-odd pages before about how it is a supreme violation of the hillbilly code of honor to call a man's mother a bitch, Vance calling himself "one lucky son of a bitch" seemed a little odd — like a little wink. Like I said, I'd like to think I'm overthinking it (or not getting it — I don't have a particular problem with people calling people's mothers "bitches," since clearly what do they know about anyone's particular mother, and if it actually were the case, mightn't you not disagree?), but part of me wants to think there's a little magic happening here.
Which brings me to my final point: Hillbilly Elegy is good, but I don't see who the particular audience is — part of it, at least the part of it that needs to be understood before November 8, 2016, seems to be about a type of voter. Another part is what Vance says: he wants to reach out to kids like himself to tell them to pull up their pants (or whatever). But the other part that is the grand unified theory, at least for me, is if it is a Dreams of My Father for rednecks — and that's the book that combines it all.