Pretty deeply ambivalent about this book. There's no doubt about the necessity of listening to smart, honest books from what (as the media that's anoiPretty deeply ambivalent about this book. There's no doubt about the necessity of listening to smart, honest books from what (as the media that's anointed Vance a kind of spokesperson calls it) "Trump's America." Vance provides that, with a report that combines personal experience growing up in an Appalachian (he calls it "hillbilly") family that emigrated from Kentucky to Ohio with a certain amount of sociological context. His use of William Julius Wilson's The Truly Disadvantaged as a touchstone for recognizing the links between his background and the circumstances of life in African American inner cities is on point. The portrait of a culture that's riven by violence, drug use, economic dispossession and its own contradictions is frequently compelling. But there's also a streak of nostalgia that blurs the hard edges for reasons that are understandable--he doesn't want to and shouldn't demonize his family--but also at times evasive. And the politics are at best fuzzy. When he thinks about what the policy implications of Hillbilly Elegy are, he resorts to a set of near-cliches: there are sufficient supports in place, we don't need more government, we need more attention to the actual lives of people being effected. Probably true, but two and a half levels too abstract to be useful and mired at a certain point in a kind of "conservatism" (his self-description) that he never really explains from ground up. Much of the book is what Robert Stepto would call an "ascent" narrative--the story of how a protagonist escapes poverty to reach a real, but alienating success in a world that seems foreign (Yale); but part of it's also an "immersion" narrative, a return to the roots, which carries with it a very mixed bag of emotions--need to criticize, need to accept.
And he never really comes to terms with race, claiming that the Hillbilly dislike of Obama is about class rather than race. Whatever, man....
The writing's okay, nothing special but it does its job.
Right around a 3.49999 star ranking, but I'm going to register my hesitations. Could profitably be read as part of a sequence with Night Comes to the Cumberlands, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Harry Crews' brilliant memoir, A Childhood and Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina....more
I'll start with the caveat and then move on to an explanation of why this earns a place on my "favorites" shelf, which I limit to books that combine wI'll start with the caveat and then move on to an explanation of why this earns a place on my "favorites" shelf, which I limit to books that combine writing excellence, depth and personal impact. Baldwin, Adrienne Rich, Leslie Silko, Ulysses...the true A list.
But there is a caveat. O'Brien's Sixties are white and privileged: he writes (consciously) from the perspective of middle-to-upper-middle class youth, with a masculine tilt. There are no black characters, no Vietnam vets, and women are present in angular relationship to the center of the stories.
Most of the time, those elements would seriously compromise my sense of a book's quality, and there's a small voice in the back of my head whispering that I shouldn't be giving Dream Time quite as strong a recommendation as I am. And there's a possibility that O'Brien's real audience consists of people who share some/most of his "identity" characteristics. But I don't think so and I'll move on to explaining why.
Like Rich's poetry and Baldwin's prose, Dream Time knows precisely where it's coming from and is deeply aware of the complications we use the superficialities of "identity" to veil and evade. It's a jazz book, one dedicated to testing phrasings, exploring the ways internal states of being freeze, thaw, melt, are exploded by the changes in the external world, re-form, dissolve again, grasp on to phrasings as life rafts that have already begun to sink by the time we've located them. On a sentence by sentence basis, the book is stunning. O'Brien frequently writes a paragraph, half-paragraph, sometimes only a phrase, from a perspective firmly committed to a "truth" which the next phrase or paragraph refracts into a new configuration. As I read I found myself repeatedly wondering how he took us from point A--maybe a commitment to revolution as envisioned by Che or the lure of James Bond fashion or a shared moment of sexual ecstasy--to point B, from which the first moment appears to have been pure delusion or willed innocence. Been a while since I've fallen so firmly under the sway of an unfamiliar writing style. O'Brien's written eloquently about jazz, so I suspect he understands the style in precisely those terms, but it doesn't really matter. The impact is immediate, visceral and its implications are absolutely opposed to abstraction and generalization.
And that's precisely what, at their best, the Sixties were about: constant questioning and evolution. But also profound disillusionment. The structure of the book follows, inevitably I'm afraid, a tragic arc, or maybe a tragicomic arc. But that's not quite right because it requires accepting the late beat, affluent nuclear nightmare of the early 60s as a desirable state of being, a mistake O'Brien's far too sharp to make. Each chapter takes on a different state of (mostly white, male-centered, economically shielded) being, takes apart its contradictions, insecurities,while recognizing the spiritual and political visions that can't be dismissed with a glib ironic " critique."
Not sure how clearly Dream Time will communicate with those who don't follow the allusions--"you had to be there, man"? There's a bit less music than in my memory of the time, a bit more film, a lot more NYC "high culture" (I should probably add region to the list of "limitations"--the Sixties meant something way different in the Rocky Mountain Time Zone than they did in the Ivy League sphere. But at the end, none of that mattered much to me. I had a specific location that conditioned my sense of the sixties; so did everyone else who lived through the time. What I'm sure of is that O'Brien has provided one of the clearest pictures I've seen of how the Sixties felt.
When you're done, read Baldwin's Another Country, Rich's Leaflets, Leroi Jones' Dead Lecturer, Denise Levertov, Gwendolyn Brooks...listen to Dylan and Aretha and Coltrane and Nina Simone.....But keep Dream Time in the mix....more