If I didn’t know Scott McClanahan, I’d be worried about him. In fact, I’d go up to him and ask, “What is wrong with you?” That’s a less profane version of the question his wife, Sarah, asks him near the beginning of The Sarah Book when he burns their wedding Bible after getting a series of Taco Bell receipts that total $6.66.
Burning Bibles isn’t the half of it. If Scott McClanahan’s life was a head of hair it would be coming out in huge handfuls. Drinking gin out of a water bottle as he drives his children down the interstate. Marriage coming apart. Living in the Walmart parking lot. Smashing up a computer containing his kids’ photos.
Like I said, I’d be worried. But who really knows Scott McClanahan?
I discovered McClanahan, the writer, in his 2013 book Crapalachia: a Biography of a Place. It was 120 proof West Virginia lunacy from the first chapter, which managed, in the course of 5 pages, to squeeze in a mountain family with 13 kids, 5 suicides, cockfighting, and an outhouse in which McClanahan’s grandfather does something unspeakable with a letter from the coal mines denying his pension.
Don’t call his books Appalachian Minstrel Show Lit, though. As McClanahan says in Crapalachia’s appendix, this is not Mary Lee Settle’s tamed and simple folks made gauzy by the blue haze of their mountains and the purity of their dulcimer-soundtracked lives. This is drunk-crying when you fall in the hole left from where you pulled up a stump and didn’t fill it in while you’re trying to storm off to get beef jerky because your wife won’t participate in a day of debauchery with you—that kind of honesty.
“Sarah said, ‘Well, why are you crying?’ I walked back to the house and I told her it was true. I’d fallen in a hole and lied about it.” (The Sarah Book, 91)
Like the car crash he shoulda had in the first chapter of The Sarah Book, you can’t look away from this kind of writing. It’s so raw and real that you can’t help but marvel at its authenticity, even as you gasp at the appalling and belly laugh at the absurd aspects of such a show.
Except what’s real here? What presents itself as memoir turns out to be an imaginatively-constructed life of a character who shares the author’s name. The Crapalachia appendix undoes many of the assumptions piled up over the 158 pages preceding. Author McClanahan reports that Uncle Stanley was actually his dad, he never lived with his grandmother Ruby and Uncle Nathan, and he never poured beer into Nathan’s feeding tube, (among other confessions). The Sarah Book doesn’t include such a post-script, but it’s clear the same sort of alchemy of life and story has happened here.
Which is not to say that either book is untrue. I believe it when McClanahan says he called his dad Uncle Stanley “because I wanted to bring Stanley back into the family,” [Crapalachia, 162].
I believe in-the-book McClanahan when he complains about his English class because “all the students wanted to do was talk about whether the characters in the stories were good people or bad people or whether the writer was a good person or a bad person. Like this even existed.” [The Sarah Book, 135] I believe him when he says:
“That night I dreamed we were all magnets. I dreamed all living things were magnets and from the moment of our births we were being drawn together by some invisible force. I was a magnet and Sarah was a magnet and books were magnets too. We had finally found one another.” [The Sarah Book, 207]
“I never look at a painting and ask, ‘Is this painting fictional or non-fictional?’,” McClanahan says. “It’s just a painting.” [Crapalachia, 165] And that’s ultimately why I’m not worried about McClanahan. Because he’s not trying to shock you with the extreme behavior of in-the-book McClanahan.
Well, OK, he is. He absolutely is. (“I wanted to punch the reader in the face. Literally punch them in the face [with the opening chapter]” he told an Electric Lit interviewer about The Sarah Book.]
But what he’s also doing is trying to create something desperately alive within the pages of a book. In his writing, his lost and distant family is vivid and unmistakable, his marriage is epic and his divorce is a “sacred wound,” his suffering “is a hug from God,” if he believed in God [Sarah, 206], and West Virginia is not a place to be pitied or distorted into being something its not—it just is in all its humiliating humanity.
I’m here to tell you, he succeeds. This is some of the best writing of our day illuminating some of the most neglected corners of our world where the cobwebs of our soul collect. Reading Scott McClanahan, you’ll feel the dense thrill and tragedy of being human in this place and time. And like the author himself, you won’t want the last page to be the end when the summative judgement is delivered. As in-the-book Scott says, cribbing David Copperfield, “Whether I shall turn out to be the villain of my own life…these pages must show.” [Sarah, 37] What incandescent pages!
* Tyrant Books provided a copy of The Sarah Book for my review. I bought Crapalachia myself!