Curtis Robinson

Curtis Robinson

Understanding the Fervor of Trump supporters with Hillbilly Elegy

Hey, a lot of people seem anxious to get a read on this Trump phenomenon — some literally.
 
And into that anxiety strides one J.D. Vance, 30-something Marine veteran, Silicon Valley attorney and Yale Law School grad, who might seem an odd candidate for his first book to become the season's hottest political read. Yet there's Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis atop the must-read list. I even ran into a neighbor at Nonesuch Books buying a copy for her reading group. She finished it by the next week and asked me about the profanity — do they really talk like that? To kids?
 
Such questions have come my way of late because I am myself an Appalachian-American from the very part of Kentucky fueling Elegy. Some level of verification is helpful, because Vance is widely criticized back home for not being nearly hillbilly enough. It turns out the Vance family left the hills a generation before the author was born, headed for those good industrial jobs up in Ohio. So his book is roughly like somebody raised in one of the better Boston suburbs suddenly writing about how those folks in The County got that way, and he knows because his grandparents lived there. Trust me, hillbillies have the same tolerance for critics "from away" (our term is "from off") as Mainers.
 
To that point, it's culturally helpful to note that the term "hillbilly" remains one of the few derogatory nouns still routinely available to non-members of the group being disparaged. It's at least somewhat akin to the African-American internalization of the foulest of their monikers (and just forget what the sexual identity warriors of the 1980s did to reverse their triggers — it's a long list).
 
Not that geo-cred matters at this point. The national media has already adopted him with a ton of coverage, including a Brian Williams interview, a New York Times piece (natch) on one of the Clinton-Trump debates, and even a TED Talk on how we've forgotten the working class. They've called him a "redneck whisperer" and the Hillbilly Guru. 
 
So, for the record: Hillbilly Elegy carried the shock of recognition in virtually every chapter.
 
Look, back home is so different that a columnist at one of the state's top newspapers, wrote, unquestioned: "Time was when nobody wanted to be known as a hillbilly. Nowadays, everybody wants to be one, except those out on the roads who are victims of hillbilly profiling and who get pulled over by the police simply because their old truck has a coal-miner-peeing-on-the-president decal in the back window. That is probable cause for something, and gets the hillbilly hauled into court and relieved of several hundred dollars in fines and costs to fund the edifice complex which got us all those new courthouses, and leads to the hillbilly having to shoplift groceries."
 
Spoiler alert: Vance is privilege-check challenged.
 
In fact, he pretty much leads off with "... in our race-conscious society, our vocabulary often extends no further than the color of someone's skin — 'black people,' 'Asians,' 'white privilege.' Sometimes these broad categories are useful, but to understand my story, you have to delve into the details. I may be white, but I do not identify with the WASPs of the Northeast. Instead, I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree. To these folks, poverty is the family tradition — their ancestors were day laborers in the Southern slave economy, share-croppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and mill workers during more recent times. Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family."
 
But wait. Reading that previous quote, I fear the impression that Mr. Vance, with his fancy use of Oxford comma and gift for on-the-nose rhetoric, might be a slow read. Far from it — his horrid tale of come-and-go father figures, profane grandparents, beatings, tragic drug abuse and general horror is the stuff of nightmares. I know because I have some of those nightmares.
 
feature bookHilbillyElegy Joseph SohmShutterstock
 
Vance talks about feeling like a persecuted minority in Ohio, and I remember being chased down a Columbus street, trying to bolt from semi-protected playground to obscurity before Those Guys saw me, and being caught and slapped around a bit, with the usual taunts and the staple: "Three R's for hillbillies? Reading, writing and Route 23!" (The route into central Ohio).
 
Like him, we were cautioned not to "get above his raising." 
 
Vance notes that as a child he felt "... boys who got good grades were 'sissies' or 'faggots.' I don't know where I got this feeling ... studies now show that working-class boys like me do much worse in school because they view schoolwork as a feminine endeavor." That admission reminds me of sometimes asking my sisters to carry my textbooks home lest I'd be caught studying — the standard bully move was that such a boy was "queer" and/or the apparent multi-state catch-all "faggot." (When one of those very bullies — many years later, of course, and in a galaxy far, far away — introduced me to his new husband, well, it was the kind of tipping-point insight you just can't get any other way.)
 
And when Vance talks about his patient, not-from-the-hills wife reminding him that not every perceived slight "is cause for a blood feud," I did smile a bit. My Mainer wife does the same while being kind enough to remind me that the Appalachians don't exactly end in West Virginia — something worth remembering in a state that sent 25 percent of its electoral votes to Mr. Trump. 
 
Basically, Vance credits his success to the U.S. Marine Corps, some luck with mentors and a family that, despite enough dysfunctions to make the Kardashians cringe, offered more or less unconditional love. This is a bit modest because his clear work ethic and what seems to be a reliable self-evaluation gene serve him well.
 
In his role as the Neil deGrasse Tyson of Rouge Nape America, Vance clearly leans center-right, having worked for a Republican congressman and generally embracing Kentucky's odd political identity; for example, the Bluegrass State's Rand Paul just became the only Republican to vote against repealing Obamacare.  To the point of the Trump election, Vance — who did not support the president-elect — has explained in interviews that hillbillies “... view Hillary Clinton as the representative of a cultural tribe that is alien and hostile and judgmental of nearly everything about their way of life. … That feeling of cultural alienation is very real. … There is a certain amount of cultural condescension that comes from the elites to the rest of the country.”
 
Back home we'd say "nobody likes getting talked down to."
 
Hillbilly Elegy makes that point in a very human way. It offers a starkly different and more personal take than the 2004 "it" book, Thomas Frank's What's The Matter With Kansas?, which also involved somebody addressing Appalachian culture to address their point. Speaking of other such books, it would be hillbilly malpractice not to mention the cult-following classic Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches From America's Class War by Joe Bageant. And while we're at it, don't forget Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America for lessons in frustration.
 
Look, it's no secret that Trump supporters are madder than hell and aren't going to take it anymore. To be sure, Elegy is only one piece to understanding that anger, even if fitting the pieces together can feel less like a jigsaw endeavor and more like the agony of that guy with the leg lamp in A Christmas Story
 
It could be that J.D. Vance's real accomplishment might be offering just a bit of glue. 
  • Published in Books

Pumpkinhead release at Shipyard adjusts to the seasons

As an early adopter of fall in North America, Maine has been busy with longstanding change-of-season rituals as varied as digging out stored ski gear, going to that same apple-picking orchard or closing camps and cottages; saying goodbyes to the Florida-bound neighbors without noting that 20-below keeps the riffraff out, and we shift not only fashion but food (bring on the root veggies!) and drink – those summer suds must finally give way to the soul-searching amber of deep-winter whiskey ... or, you know, whatever.

Of course, we don't just jump straight into January self-medication season, thank Gaia.

Transition!

That's what seasonal brews are for, right?

Which brings us to the most traditional of Maine seasonal brews: Pumpkinhead.

"Traditional" because Shipyard Brewing helped pioneer the craft-brew seasonal idea some 20 years ago, following the now-familiar path of being available draft-only for a while and hitting the retail shelves in 2002. That crafty history is vital, and worth setting down.

These days, Pumpkinhead (which, by the way, is more "pumpkin pie" than pumpkin) is one of the nation's best-selling seaonals. So it made industry news nationally when Shipyard decided to delay its release to September 1st to combat "season creep" – that trend that, when applied to retailers, has given us Christmas displays not only before Thanksgiving but darn well next to the 4th of July flags.

Perhaps worse, the newcomers for fall beers had begun to push the warm-weather seasonal beers off the shelves while many of us were mourning summer's passing with stage-one grief: denial. Shipyard founder Fred Forsley was widely quoted saying "enough is enough" for the seasonal creep.

That is a bit odd, of course. Fans of the 'head will be thinking they can recall that it was certainly one of the beers pushing its way into more than a few late-summer concerts ... but Shipyard confessed to being part of the creep.

“Over the past few years craft brewers — Shipyard included — have steadily pushed up the release dates of seasonal beers to the point that these beers are now out of season," said Forsley in his announcement. "This push has stripped these beers of their context and fun and angered our customers. So we’re going to put our seasonal beers back in season and try to end this foolishness.”

Bruce Forsley, Fred’s cousin and Shipyard’s sales director, made the "Otter from Animal House" case against seasonal creep, saying it is "... screwing up seasonal beers for everybody" and adding that "... if these beers come out at the right time and stay through their intended time slot, we think consumers and retailers will be happier and the beers will sell better.”

Fred Forsley even gave a nod to the old-school tradition of planning ahead like you have to do with those self-extinguishing Trader Joe's candles (official candle of the drinking man and late-night football) that disappear with the spring thaw: “Pumpkinhead is a holiday beer that was designed to be enjoyed from early fall through Thanksgiving and into the Christmas holidays. And if you wanted it with Christmas, you stocked up in late November before it left the store shelves. That’s our focus this year.”

So, 'Head fans, you have been warned.

Pumpkinhead notes: They tell us the beer is made not with skull fragments from Sleepy Hollow nightriders (see the label) but "... with a dash of malted wheat, U.S. and European hops and an English ale yeast." It's a good beer to have when you're going to have more than one and your Trump-supporting uncles are coming to dinner, with just 4.5 percent ABV (alcohol by volume). It certainly lives up to its billing as "super-sessionable" and you either think it goes over-the-top with the pumpkin-pie spice thing, or you're a good American like the rest of us.

Classic fall rituals abound, including Pumpkinhead

As an early adopter of fall in North America, Maine has been busy with longstanding change-of-season rituals as varied as digging out stored ski gear, going to that same apple-picking orchard or closing camps and cottages; saying goodbyes to the Florida-bound neighbors without noting that 20-below keeps the riffraff out, and we shift not only fashion but food (bring on the root veggies!) and drink – those summer suds must finally give way to the soul-searching amber of deep-winter whiskey ... or, you know, whatever.

Of course, we don't just jump straight into January self-medication season, thank Gaia.

Transition!

That's what seasonal brews are for, right?

Which brings us to the most traditional of Maine seasonal brews: Pumpkinhead.

"Traditional" because Shipyard Brewing helped pioneer the craft-brew seasonal idea some 20 years ago, following the now-familiar path of being available draft-only for a while and hitting the retail shelves in 2002. That crafty history is vital, and worth setting down.

These days, Pumpkinhead (which, by the way, is more "pumpkin pie" than pumpkin) is one of the nation's best-selling seaonals. So it made industry news nationally when Shipyard decided to delay its release to September 1st to combat "season creep" – that trend that, when applied to retailers, has given us Christmas displays not only before Thanksgiving but darn well next to the 4th of July flags.

Perhaps worse, the newcomers for fall beers had begun to push the warm-weather seasonal beers off the shelves while many of us were mourning summer's passing with stage-one grief: denial. Shipyard founder Fred Forsley was widely quoted saying "enough is enough" for the seasonal creep.

That is a bit odd, of course. Fans of the 'head will be thinking they can recall that it was certainly one of the beers pushing its way into more than a few late-summer concerts ... but Shipyard confessed to being part of the creep.

“Over the past few years craft brewers – Shipyard included — have steadily pushed up the release dates of seasonal beers to the point that these beers are now out of season," said Forsley in his announcement. "This push has stripped these beers of their context and fun and angered our customers. So we’re going to put our seasonal beers back in season and try to end this foolishness.”

Bruce Forsley, Fred’s cousin and Shipyard’s sales director, made the "Otter from Animal House" case against seasonal creep, saying it is "... screwing up seasonal beers for everybody" and adding that "... if these beers come out at the right time and stay through their intended time slot, we think consumers and retailers will be happier and the beers will sell better.”

Fred Forsley even gave a nod to the old-school tradition of planning ahead like you have to do with those self-extinguishing Trader Joe's candles (official candle of the drinking man and late-night football) that disappear with the spring thaw: “Pumpkinhead is a holiday beer that was designed to be enjoyed from early fall through Thanksgiving and into the Christmas holidays. And if you wanted it with Christmas, you stocked up in late November before it left the store shelves. That’s our focus this year.”

So, 'Head fans, you have been warned.

Pumpkinhead notes: They tell us the beer is made not with skull fragments from Sleepy Hollow nightriders (see the label) but "... with a dash of malted wheat, U.S. and European hops and an English ale yeast." It's a good beer to have when you're going to have more than one and your Trump-supporting uncles are coming to dinner, with just 4.5 percent ABV (alcohol by volume). It certainly lives up to its billing as "super-sessionable" and you either think it goes over-the-top with the pumpkin-pie spice thing, or you're a good American like the rest of us.

  • Published in Food

Summer reading hijinks: Bukowski, giraffes and HST

Ah, let us pause to consider the summer reading list.

In our era of Facebook, Instawhatever and reduction of conversation to chatting in a snap, “The List” still looms, whether digital or dead-tree, with the sort of experience-defying resolve usually reserved for New Year’s Eve weight-loss plans and third marriages involving school-age children.

This is the summer, we resolve, that “War and Peace” will not just mean listening to Amy Goodman’s truly alarming report on how our foreign policy gives “quagmire” a nostalgic, optimistic tone.

Into our consideration of that annual rite, let me inject a subplot that, while remaining unproven or even researched, has been observed upon occasion hereabouts: fictional self-searching our friends’ work.

Of course I don’t mean looking into well-written stories to discover meaning and insight into the human condition – I’m pretty sure there’s an app for that. No, and this has to do with where we live amid a creative near-economy, it’s finding YOURSELF (or even your quotes or stories) included in somebody’s work. In Washington, they call one form of this “the Washington read” where people check out a book’s index to see if their name appears. If not, they pass on the book – some writers have dropped index use because they want to make people buy the book.

That’s fine if you live among folks who are anal and rich enough for a freaking index (note to fellow scribes: notice how I just wrote around the plural?).

It’s a common enough issue among those of us who consider ourselves some level artist/writers (you know damn well who you are, don't give me The Eye) who hang out with people who also consider themselves artists and who defy the odds and actually produce work. It's not just here – I’m sure it happens in small restaurants near the Caff-Fiend coffeeshop outside Topeka – but you have to admit that Portland has more than its share of publishing, song-writing, joke-creating, paint-splaying residents. And with social media, is anybody safe?

Here’s proof: If somebody says they need to reschedule lunch because they have to screen a doc, you don’t for a minute think they’re interviewing a physician.

There are some bragging rights involved for ego-driven Development League folks. I have been included, often by name, in the musings of Hunter S. Thompson, M. John Fayhee and Christopher Hitchens, all of whom, and not by coincidence, were steady drinking buddies over multiple years. I’ve been included, thinly disguised, in a Village Voice sex story and in the New York Times relationship column. If there was any truth to that old saw that “writing a good novel comes from living a good novel,” I’d be the offing second coming of F. Scott his own badself. But what the hell? The world needs its Oscars, Deans and Sanchos, right Tonto?

(That said, let me meet certain terms of settlement and address the incident of most damage over the years: Dr. Thompson was using a gonzo device, if you read carefully, and I have no “issues” with Koreans, my sister was never married to a Korean and I truly love the entire peace-embracing convenience store universe, and I’ve never personally owned anything manufactured by the good folks at Glock.)

Which brings me, with my word-count looming like a pop-up thunderstorm, to what we’ll have to call The Point.

My summer reading list will include a wonderful and alarming collection of stories from my friend Jeff Weddle, who many of you will no doubt remember from his stint as library director at Topsham, if only because it somehow went relatively quietly given … well, “given.”

“Dr. Weddle,” as they no doubt call him at the huge southern university where he somehow tenured into a day job, actually published “When Giraffes Flew” a few months back. In the interest of disclosure, a previous Weddle book, “Bohemian New Orleans: The story of the Outsider and Loujon Press) was foundational to a documentary I co-produced with Wayne Ewing (see how this works?). We have also navigated a few figurative and literal backroads.

Jeff is a writer the way my Nana was a Freewill Baptist; a man of faith. He actually won the Eudora Welty Prize for the Outsider book, which is a must-read for any Charles Bukowski fan; the movie version may still be available at Wayne Ewing Film’s website. 

To describe the Giraffes/Flew collection, I will defter to a reviewer from understatement.com who noted that “… as if Rick Bragg married Lewis Gizzard and gave birth to Jeff Foxworthy and Flannery O'Conner while filming an episode of Jerry Springer. I mean that in best way possible.” For the record, while I’m certainly in some of these stories (God help me), I’m not actually the character who carries my name, which is good given that there’s no statute of limitation on some crimes.

It’s not just me onboarding the Weddle train. One reviewer likened this collection to the work of Harry Crews, David Lynch and even Richard Ford, the later most likely because of a story called Dog Days about a broken man dealing with his wife leaving in favor of a friend: “’I just want my kids. I just want to give my kids a dog.’ Martin’s voice broke, and he felt more ashamed than he had ever felt in his life.”

Granted, some of the “flash fiction” pieces in Giraffe will surprise those accustomed to more detailed stuff, but so what?

Me, I know Jeff and so I know that what the reviewers are hearing there is not really echoed from other writers, at least not any more than we’re all haunted by certain ghosts. But if must compare what reading Giraffes/Flew might be like for your summer … well, let’s say you once had the good luck to stumble upon the stories of Breece D'J Pancake while living in your 1966 Impala SS, just until the apartment becomes available next week, mid-July at the latest, then it’s like that. Yesssssss, it’s like that.

  • Published in News

Dunn's Steinbeck moment: Maine's wine scene, tasty doughnuts gain notice in new book

As wine production goes, Maine’s a great beer state with the world’s best gluten-free doughnuts.

That’s the take-away from a new book by spirits writer Dan Dunn, whose American Wino was released nationally by HarperCollins last week. The former Playboy Magazine and Esquire writer, who managed to write five pages about a single hydroplaning nanosecond on the New Jersey Turnpike, managed just three paragraphs from several days in the Pine Tree State.
The memoir begins with an insightful visit with movie star Kurt Russell, solid wine-industry info and magazine-style prose. Then, like all really good road trips, the journey spirals into something else entirely.
Maine enters the tale more or less midway of the journey, and it ain’t pretty: “From Vermont is was on to Portland, Maine, where I attended Harvest on the Harbor, billed as the city’s premier food and wine festival,” it says in Wino, “I was excited to check out the many wines from Maine I assumed would be poured there, but failed to find even one. There was, however, plenty of delightful Maine-made craft beer on hand…”
He also notes that he would be “remiss if I didn’t single out the potato donuts (potato donuts!) from the Holy Donut as the single most appetizing gluten-free food that has ever been created.”
Dan’s book (I’ve known the writer for years so last-name formality is a non-starter) is based on the premise that he’ll use the excuse of researching American wine for a soul-searching road trip across North America, even “cheating” in his theme with a jaunt to see his “… Canadian girlfriend, Canada.” 
Granted, Maine's wine scene has room to improve — and we're better than when Dan visited more than a year ago — but the fact remains that a leading wine writer, after some 135 pages proving that local communities embrace their neighboring wines without fail, he faithfully reports that “… over the course of several days in Maine’s most populous city, and numerous visits to its restaurants and wine bars, not a single one carried wine made in-state.”
The local cameo aside, American Wino is a surprisingly (trust me) emotional romp that’s only partly Intro To Wine 101 and partly … well, a very special noir. For one thing, we're traveling with his recently deceased brother, who is manifest both in the book’s best dialogue (readers WILL find themselves using the term “live people problems”) and via a Mason jar of his cremation ashes, sprinkled like hourglass sand around the country. The brother died from an ill-timed jump off Los Angeles' Venice Pier. He'd been drinking a bit — some of that at Dan's place. On long drives, that sort of thing comes up.
For another thing, we learn about Dan's mother, who emerges as a truly heart-breaking character with serious mental issues. Among the very, very least of these is that she is sort of  mrs. e. e. cummings of cliché. It’s a trait that plays well off the very real danger of her debilitating illness; who knew madness could be so maddening? What’s that you say — everyone who ctually deals with it?
Oh.
Maybe it’s my personal election fever, but one of the most interesting sections — both in terms of actual wine industry insight and Dan’s observations — greet us in Virginia and involve the famously non-drinking GOP presidential primary front-runner Donald Trump. If only wine drinkers could choose nominees, and given the Republican Party convention second-ballot rules that may be a possible outcome, the Virginia chapter would be youge! youge! for Our Future.
Dan writes about Trump taking over the Kluge Estate Winery in Charlottesville (pages 219-221). As background, he notes that “Kluge went all-in on a major expansion, just as the economy nosedived in 2008. The ill-timed investment ended up costing her the vineyard. With her hand forced, Kluge put the house and land on the market for $100 million, but got no offers. The bank foreclosed. It was a miserable situation. And as we all know, where there is misery, there is Trump.”
And the insight-offering kill-shot: "The land was auctioned off in parcels, much of it at fire-sale rates. However, the bank held out for big bucks for the plantation house itself. So Trump bought the relatively cheap parcel of land that included the house’s front lawn. At that sale, Trump’s general counsel commented on the house’s $16 million asking price by asking, 'Who’s going to pay that for a house with no front yard?' They ended up picking up the house for $6.5 million after the bank apparently realized they’d been Trumped..."
And wait for the after-taste. It turns out that, directly across the road from Trump and up the road from Thomas Jefferson’s old home, is Blenheim Vineyards, owned by David John “Dave” Matthews.
“Maybe you’ve heard of him,” says Dan of what he might argue is a microcosm of the entire American political landscape, given Matthews' Obama-concert ways. “He’s a musician.”
American Wino more or less proves that John Steinbeck was right in Travels With Charlie: You think you’re taking the trip, but the trip takes you. By the time our winding road leads back to Dan’s Los Angeles home, the dead brother is all but driving the rig and let's not get anyone started on that brutal scene at Buddy Holly’s grave — geesh.
Joel Stein, the Time magazine writer, likely nailed it when he wrote that “if you want to learn about wine, this will do. If you want to learn about heartbreak and beauty, this will do better.”
As for Dan’s meager take on the wine scene in Maine, he promised that his next book may be Great Wines of Maine, if the grant funding works out. Or maybe we’ll turn to what his mother would likely say: If you can’t say something good, don’t say anything at all.
(Curtis Robinson is editorial director of The Phoenix.)

The Phoenix Potpourri: Old Jordan’s Meats site transformation; Italian food writer in SoPo

East End development touted as ‘tax increment financing’ success story

It seems the ancient wisdom of “build it and they will come,” applies not just to Hollywood baseball fields but also to parking garages.

Developers this week are announcing $18.4 million worth of new commercial real estate development around what many locals still call the old Jordan’s Meats location. The city’s decision to back parking-structure buildings there sparked years of debate, with some East End advocates complaining that their hopes of extending Old Port aesthetics into the area were thwarted by the parking.

Gonzo, but not forgotten

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Our best friends make our best ghosts. But being haunted by Hunter S. Thompson can offer a few challenges, especially with this Friday marking the 10-year milestone of his death by suicide.

  • Published in Features

Foot-dragging charged in struggle for military soles

There’s apparently more trouble brewing in an ongoing struggle over the soles of America’s military.

The U.S. Department of Defense last year finally ruled that a 1941 law requiring American-made products “where possible” applied to athletic footwear used for training — really, running shoes.

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