NEW YORK — Here is J.D. Vance, a long way from Middletown, Ohio, arriving at the gilded Fifth Avenue temple of the University Club, a massive pile of excess born of robber-baron lucre and standing in the shadow of its glass-and-steel successor, Trump Tower.
Vance has no tie. The club requires that he wear one. He is offered a scrawny, wrinkled navy number, possibly a Brooks Brothers reject, that looks as though it has collected lint through several society seasons.
That Vance is the night’s honored speaker, at a benefit for socioeconomically disadvantaged students, which he himself was not a decade ago, makes no difference. Rules are rules.
None of this is lost on Vance, 32, a proud product of Appalachia, the Marines, Ohio State and Yale Law. The son of a mother who married five times and took to hard drugs. Whose father left the home by the time his son had started walking and gave him up for adoption when J.D. (for James David) was 6, to be raised by his mother, his maternal grandparents and a parade of stepfathers. (She’s clean now, and he’s back in Vance’s life.)
Seven months ago, Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” exploded into the national political conversation. Although Donald Trump gets not a solitary mention in the book, the novice author’s timing proved exquisite.
The memoir describes the plight of poor, angry white Americans in Appalachia and the Rust Belt, a tinderbox of resentment that ignited national politics. His family roots on his mother’s side run deep in Kentucky, specifically Breathitt County, before his grandparents settled in Middletown. “Hillbilly Elegy” crested the bestseller list, tumbled slightly, only to spike again after the presidential election. Late last week, it was the No. 2 bestseller on Amazon behind George Orwell’s dystopian classic, “1984.”
The book, with an initial printing of 10,000, has sold half a million copies in hardcover and 280,000 digital and audio editions, according to the publisher, HarperCollins.
CNN hired Vance as a paid commentator. He has become a regular contributor to the New York Times opinion page. He’s in high demand as a lecturer, being offered what he deems “a preposterous amount of money.” His schedule is such a circus that he recently had to hire a personal assistant.
The Trump whisperer, they call him. Also, J.D., the Rust Belt anger translator.
A weird place to be, he concedes. “It’s an indictment of our media culture that a group that includes tens of millions of people is effectively represented by one guy,” he says. “I feel sort of uncomfortable being the guy.”
But for now, he is.
Vance and his family — his mother and sister and whichever man his mother was with at the moment — moved constantly, chaos their credo, until, as a teenager, he’d had enough. In high school, he chose to live with his beloved maternal grandmother, Mamaw, a profanity-spewing hill woman — “a violent nondrunk,” he calls her — who never spent much time in high school but was armed with an unwavering belief that her grandson could do anything.
Vance understands the rarity of his journey, that if the Ivy League didn’t festoon his résumé, he probably wouldn’t be addressing the evening’s benefit, surrounded by degree-laden liberals in America’s pulsing blue border.
Several guests at the event, clutching copies of “Hillbilly” to their chests, beseech Vance, believing that he’s a fellow progressive: “What are we going to do? We Democrats need to figure this out.”
Vance is a conservative Republican. He’s a contributor to the National Review and has interned and clerked for Republicans.
“It’s very interesting, right?” he says later of the political presumption. “It seems to me an indictment of the Republican Party that if you talk about issues of poverty and upward mobility, people assume you’re a Democrat.”
“This country is segregated by race, geography and income in a way that it hasn’t been in a very, very long time,” he says. “The person in New York City is showing too little empathy for the Trump voter. The Trump voter is showing too little empathy for the person who’s very worried about the refugee ban. They’re not spending enough time with each other to have a meaningful conversation.”
For the record, Vance is not a Trump fan. Trump, he says, “ran an angry, very adversarial campaign that in tone matched the frustrations of the people I wrote about. He certainly ran a pretty cynical campaign, and got a lot of votes from people who are feeling cynical about the future.” Vance voted for independent candidate Evan McMullin.
On this night, a long way from his family’s origins in a Kentucky holler, Vance will feast on a $46 steak, drain a $19 martini, slumber in a $700 hotel room and shake his head at the absurdity of it all.
For all his confidence — he raced through college in less than two years, graduating summa cum laude — “he’s always retained this boyish charm,” says his childhood friend Nate Ellis. “He’s never really lost it. He’s unapologetically J.D.”
Vance tells the joke — naturally, i n a TED Talk, and again in his University Club address — of being offered chardonnay or sauvignon blanc at an event, not knowing the difference, and requesting the former because it was easier to pronounce. Later in the evening, he will ask whether he’s pronouncing “canard” correctly and whether bearnaise sauce is “just fancy mayonnaise.” (Yes, and yes.)
Vance lives in San Francisco — the antithesis of his home town of Middletown — where he works as a principal in an investment group co-founded by Peter Thiel, one of the few Silicon Valley poo-bahs to support Trump. But he and his wife, Usha, are moving to Columbus, most likely by the end of the month.
There, he plans to run a small nonprofit organization “to work on battling the opioid crisis and bringing durable capital to the region,” he says. “I never wanted to be a public intellectual or a talking head. I actually care about solving some of these things.”
“It’s been a crazy year,” says Usha Vance, the daughter of Indian immigrants and an associate in a San Francisco law firm. “I think the process of writing for him was a process of discovery, where he was realizing things about himself.”
They met in law school. He declared his love for her after their first date. He also made it clear that Ohio would be in their future.
“I’ve basically been homesick since I was 18 years old,” when he joined the Marines, says Vance. “Usha knew that this kid is obsessed with Ohio, and he will not consider his life happy and fulfilled unless he goes back home.”
Their life is about to become crazier. They’re expecting their first child, a boy, due June 1. “Life is sort of complicated. A couple of months after that, [Usha’s] going to start a new job, a temporary one as these things are,” says Vance somewhat awkwardly.
Doing what? “Uh, a clerkship with the chief justice.”
Not of Ohio, mind you, but with Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts Jr. Usha’s mother, a biology professor in California, plans to take time off and help with the baby.
“Hillbilly Elegy” began as a law school writing project on the thwarted economic mobility of Rust Belt residents. Vance’s contracts professor and “authorial godmother,” Amy Chua, pushed him to make the argument part of a memoir. In 2011, she had experienced success writing about her life and pronounced parenting views in “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.”
Vance recalls telling Chua, “Nobody wants to read about me.” Also, “I didn’t expect the book to be as politically relevant.”
Chua recalls: “We just really clicked. I saw something special in him. When I was in the middle of the firestorm about ‘Tiger Mother,’ J.D. wrote me that ‘you sound just like my grandmother,’ and he started to pour out his heart.”
“He’s such a true person,” she adds. “You can tell an honest voice.”
Vance believed early on that Trump would be the Republican nominee. He didn’t think that he’d be elected president, though. When he was, Vance became the moment’s prized talking head. The day after the election, “from 6 a.m. until around 11:30 p.m., I was on television effectively constantly, this idiot with a book.”
When he got off the air, “it was the No. 1 book on Amazon,” he says. “It had become the book that people were talking about to explain this very surprising election.”
People often ask Vance whether his return to Ohio is part of some grander plan, perhaps running for political office? He’s already famous, at ease on television and speaking at Manhattan fundraisers without notes.
“He was always interested in political philosophy and social science,” Ellis says. “In high school, we would joke that J.D. is the person most likely in our class to be president or go into politics.”
To which Vance responds: “I’m not going to say that I’m never going to run. I’m certainly interested in public service over the long term. But it sort of bothers me, the presumption at the age of 32, that if someone is saying interesting things, and has interesting insights, why isn’t he running for office.”
He thinks there are other ways to contribute. “I think running a small nonprofit to work on the opioid crisis and bring interesting new businesses to the so-called Rust Belt — all of these things are valuable, if not more valuable, than running for office.”
Fair enough. “So I will say I’m not running for office right now, which is true,” he says, finishing his martini. “But it’s sort of dishonest and, sort of, like, cagey.”
So in other words, stay tuned.