Books, Arts & Manners

Back to the Future Meets Hillbilly Elegy

From left: Haley Bennett, Glenn Close, and Owen Asztalos in Hillbilly Elegy. (Lacey Terrell/Netflix)
What time travel can tell us about heartland hurting.

It is a sad thing to watch a place die. The film adaptation of J. D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy, which details an Appalachian son’s improbable success following a difficult Ohio Rust Belt upbringing, has partially renewed the conversation about rural discontent and industrial decline that the book’s 2016 publication and Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory brought to national attention. But places such as Middletown, Ohio, where Vance was raised, were suffering before Hillbilly Elegy came out. The conversation over their struggles is now somewhat politically charged, and thus often has the character of a debate. Did globalist elites and Big Pharma sell out such places to China and for oxycontin profits, respectively, making them victims? Did they destroy themselves by failing to cultivate the virtues and the institutions that preceding generations handed down to them, giving them a hand in their own troubles? Can they be saved? Should they be?

The questions are complicated, and, as with many issues, turn on many factors that are difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle from one another. Indeed, an exploration of such instances of decline often leads one into insoluble chicken-and-egg questions, pondering, for example, whether one place’s fortunes faltered because its most productive residents left, or its most productive residents left because its fortunes had faltered. Vance’s contribution was to bring a spotlight to this underappreciated aspect of national life, and to show through his own example how some people fail in such modes of life and how others succeed. But nonfiction autobiography, while obviously useful, is not the only lens through which to view this pressing problem. One other instructive perspective comes from time travel.

For that, turn to Bob Leman’s sci-fi short story “Loob.” Don’t let the silly sounding title fool you: “Loob” (available here and in Ann and Jeff Vandermeer’s expansive and excellent time-travel anthology The Time Traveler’s Almanac) is a vivid and touching exploration of many of the same questions asked in Hillbilly Elegy, with a sci-fi twist that illuminates the challenges faced by such communities. Think of it as Hillbilly Elegy meets Back to the Future. Fittingly, many of its strikingly modern and poignant descriptions of a once-great industrial town seem to exist out of time itself; reading the story, you might be surprised that it was published in 1979. From this alone, one also learns that the problems of such places long preceded the publication of Vance’s book.

In 2020, it is depressingly possible to find places that fit the first-person’s narrator description of his own town as a “decrepit travesty,” “without hope and without pride . . . with no reason for existing except to provide shelter of a sort for people who are themselves without hope or pride.” Many such places perhaps reached that condition after their main employer collapsed, then “numbers of small suppliers went bankrupt” while “certain bankers and lawyers prospered greatly.” They might indeed consider the latter group “vultures” and “beetles” who “picked the carcass clean and left the town to its own devices.” And yet even in such places, residents have “stayed and watched the town decay around them,” wishing but unable to stop the decline. Maybe this is harsh, an exaggeration for literary effect, a hyperbolic composite of the extreme characteristics of a dying ville. But at that, it is certainly evocative, and even more prosperous towns can certainly recognize these symptoms of desuetude.

In Hillbilly Elegy, Vance’s difficult upbringing arises from a mix of Appalachian cultural foibles and a hollowing out of Middletown’s industrial base. In “Loob,” decline is a bit more of a mystery, one the story’s narrator hopes to solve. His investigation centers on two time periods: the early-20th-century era of the town’s former greatness, its “lusty prime” when it was a “prosperous and confident” place “whose citizens believed it might one day rival Pittsburgh,” (“It was not a wholly impossible vision,” our narrator adds); and his own present, the locus of such anomie. Hillbilly Elegy likewise contrasts the Middletown of yore, a destination for destitute Appalachian families who sought work in its factories, with a troubled present.

In “Loob,” the most important figures of its town’s prime are Henry Dappling, owner-proprietor of the factory of this one-factory town; his less impressive but still decent son Sam, whose birth killed his mother, Henry’s wife; and Olivia, Sam’s wife and the mother of Emily, a spitting-image recreation of Henry’s late wife. For this, and for the joy she brought into his world, Henry resolved that Emily’s life be “without sorrow, that her merriment was to continue all of her days.” And the key figure of the latter era is the eponymous Loob. This is the best the mentally distressed Luther Rankin, raised by a series of guardians in a succession of homes, culminating in the chaotic abode of a loosely bound husband-wife pair, can do to pronounce his own name.

Loob is also the bridge between these eras. Loob’s caretakers noticed that, as he grew up, he “walked into furniture and followed with his eyes the movements of invisible people and became frightened at the sight of things that were not there.” He interacted minimally and poorly with others and was not capable of thought as we understand it. Yet in his mind “there was a power there that normal brains do not have, and Loob could see things long invisible to everyone else, but he did not — could not — think.”

What Loob is actually seeing are people and objects from other times, with which he can interact; unable to discern a difference between past and present, he flits without distinction and without awareness between the two, leaving an imprint on each. His powers produce the paradoxes on which this story is built, as he proves capable of altering the present by affecting the past. It proves a mostly harmless ability . . . until a particularly vengeful fit of rage (though not the first) by a withdrawal-addled alcoholic guardian finds Loob as its target. Hillbilly Elegy is replete with such scenes of domestic strife. But “Loob” supplies a dark sci-fi twist: Loob placidly absorbs his guardian’s wrath, but then projects his anger into the past, where it takes the form of an indiscriminate madness that possesses Sam Dappling to murder Emily and kill himself. Henry, absent at the time, beholds the scene and is lost forever. Though he lives past this moment, his personal decline mirrors the town’s, whose own fall accelerates upon his passing. Thus with a trans-temporal jump do the pathologies of one time destroy the plenitude of another.

Time-travel stories can be consumed with their gimmicks, dwelling more on teasing out mind-bending paradoxes than telling compelling stories. And that’s if they even make sense; often, they defy even their own otherworldly logic. But the use of time travel in “Loob” is different in at least two key ways. The first is that the story’s narrator occupies a unique temporal place: He shouldn’t exist. A descendant of the Dappling family, he comes from an alternative reality where the town he observes is still a good place to live, where the Dappling tragedy never occurred. For many residents of such places, confronting the reality of their decline is likewise a near-impossibility; they remember its greatness and refuse to believe it has so fallen. But second, and more important, is Loob himself. In “Loob,” Leman plays with the predestination paradox, as much time-travel fiction does: Event A causes Event B, but Event B causes Event A. Yet “Loob” is one of the only works of time-travel fiction I’ve encountered that employs the paradox as a metaphor, in this case for the complex, entangled mass of factors at the center of heartland hurting. In our world, they can seem an intractable morass. In addition to documenting misfortune far beyond the control of any one person, both the book and film adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy cite instances of people resolutely refusing to take control of their own lives despite chances to do so. To find out which mattered “more” is as difficult to discern as it is contentious.

The world of “Loob” takes this insolubility one step further, using the conceit of time travel to establish a paradoxical loop of causality between its setting’s decline and its greatness. Was it inevitable? What caused what? Can it be undone? “Loob” makes it almost impossible to find out. As Leman puts it, “because Loob is what he is, he shattered the mind of Sam Dappling and so damned the town. Because the town was damned, Loob is what he is. There is no point of entry into this circle: Loob created the events that created Loob.”

We are lucky in this reality not to have to contend with trans-temporal malice. We have a tough enough time dealing with the maladies of our own era as they come, defying easy answers. But “Loob” suggests a complexity to this kind of social ill in our own world that is not only difficult to parse out in the present, but that also simultaneously draws from the past and relates to the future. It’s almost enough to approach the impenetrability of the paradox at the story’s heart. Indeed, in Hillbilly Elegy, Vance escapes his own causal loop by effecting a kind of break from it, even if in the subsequent course of his life he has not at all left his past behind him, to his credit. Is it possible to solve the paradox elsewhere? The narrator of “Loob” holds on to hope, invoking his improbable existence in a timeline in which he quite literally shouldn’t. Perhaps even in the face of our own improbabilities, there remains reason for us to hope in this timeline as well.