The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

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NOV 2013 Issue

Two by Scott McClanahan

Scott McClanahan
Into The Wild: Hill William
(Tyrant Books, 2013)

Scott McClanahan
Crapalachia: A Biography of Place
(Two Dollar Radio, 2013)


Scott McClanahan’s work is hard to encapsulate and almost impossible to ignore or fail to be swept up and in by. His writing’s a strange charismatic twinning of a faithful fervor and this almost loving skepticism. It's hard to get at. I read Crapalachia when it was released and forced myself from finishing it in one day, just because I wanted to think on what it was McClanahan was pulling off (also just to see if I could pull away from what is, as far as I can tell, among the most propulsive writing available). My wife had noticed the occasional gasp and asked what was going on, and I found a summation impossible. Here’s an example: McClanahan’s grandmother Ruby called him Todd, even though his name was not Todd. This apparently happened to McClanahan into his adolescence. This family fact is lots of things, but chiefly it's weird: what world does one live in when one's grandmother doesn't know her own grandson's name? More specifically, what world is it when the grandmother's failure of recognition doesn’t even merit response (however and whenever she's been corrected, it hasn't stuck)? McClanahan writes of it again in Hill William:

We went over to Ruby's across the Loops Road in Dad’s truck and almost got stuck in two feet of snow on the ground. We went over to Ruby’s, who I called Ruby, not Grandma, and who didn’t know my real name until I was ten. She always called me Todd and really only talked to me after Sunday dinner when she said, “You didn't eat much, Todd.”

I said, “My name's not Todd.”

Strange what-the-hell-ish incidents like this litter and stud Scott McClanahan’s work, and it seems worth acknowledging that these incidents echo from book to book: in the nonfiction of Crapalachia and the fiction of Hill William, there’s enough overlap to make any hardliner or gatekeeper wince. This is where any conversation about what exactly McClanahan’s doing, genre-wise, should occur, but I’d like to propose something, which is this: let’s choose not to give a damn about genre, and let’s instead agree that great writing is great writing, and propulsive narratives are propulsive narratives, and let’s let the rest of the unimportant garbage remain garbage.

Because what McClanahan's actually attempting—with, yes, some of the same incidents book to book (I’ve only read Crapalachia and Hill William; maybe this overlapping’s unique to these two and not to his earlier books)—is more heartening and humbling and overwhelmingly beautiful than almost anything you’ll find in other contemporary books. Here’s one way to describe Hill William: it’s a novel centered around a young man who’s sexually abused by someone in his peer group as a teenager, and the novel is something like this first-person narrator's attempt to wrestle with the pain or wounds (or whatever less treacley sounding phrase works for you) of growing up and trying to be alive as a functioning adult who doesn't kick holes in walls or destroy furniture.

Or punch himself in the face, which is how the book begins: “I used to hit myself in the face. Of course, I had to be careful about hitting myself now that I was dating Sarah. One night we got into a fight and I went into the bathroom to get rid of that sick feeling in my shoulders, and I did it. I wasn't feeling any better afterwards, so I hit myself in the face one more time.” The glory of McClanahan’s writing shows itself already just in that small sample—the directness, the willingness to show himself ragged and raw and wild and hurt, that speed (used to hit myself to now that I was dating Sarah to one night). And, certainly, if nothing else, know that Scott McClanahan writes like a demon, and there are damn few voices this compelling and careening and wonderful.

But the bigger thing to know about McClanahan’s work—specifically with regard to Hill William, but overall—has something to do with what might be called his project. Maybe the term's uncool to use (in poetry, the term's fought against: Dorothea Lasky titled something Poetry is Not a Project (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010) to make that exact point). I’d argue, however, that most writers (even Lasky) have projects, if by projects we mean obsessions or interests they circle back to, fussing at, endlessly riddling over.

McClanahan's fairly tricky in this regard: the easy gloss on his work is that his project has to do with depicting the casual grotesqueries and what-the-hell mentality of the West Virginia he was born and raised and still resides in—poor tribal hill folk. And McClanahan writes clearly and engagingly about the place and the people, certainly, but the bigger agenda he’s working toward has something to do with human connection, and with the ways that human connection’s not only redemptive, but, ultimately, the only way to survive.

That sounds like a new-agey and gooey charge to level, particularly at a book in which the narrator explains to his love that he’ll see a psychiatrist but won’t “even talk to anyone who had even thought about wearing turquoise jewelry, and beyond that someone who even thought it okay to associate with someone who wore turquoise jewelry. That went for people who went on and on about chakras and organic fucking food and the healing powers of the crystal shit.” But here’s the thing: the narrator tells the dark he’s carrying to a psychiatrist “in her turquoise jewelry and her hippy dippy sandals.” He tells her. His confession is, to this reader, the Big Glory of McClanahan's work: under the cover of West Virginia backwoods storytelling, he’s trying to solve for some deep human existential pain, and he’ll do whatever’s necessary (braving even turquoise). That maybe sounds worse than the gooeyness above, but you should know the final words in Hill William are “I Love You,” and one of the final scenes has to do with the narrator in the most literal way imaginable trying to get close to and become part of the earth. The ending is a crescendo of divisions wiped away—between reader and narrator, humans and earth, everything. Hill William is, like Crapalachia, an astonishment, and McClanahan has, with these two books in the same year, established a one-two punch that's hard to even imagine being topped. Sincerely. Doubt the hyperbole—you should—but read the work. Read this stuff and don't feel anything. Try it. See if you can make it through without being moved.


Weston Cutter

WESTON CUTTER is from Minnesota and is the author of You'd Be A Stranger, Too (BlazeVOX Books, 2010) and All Black Everything (New Michigan Press, 2012).


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

All Issues