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Separating Fact From Fiction In Scott McClanahan’s Hillbilly Elegies

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“There is only one thing I know about life,” Scott McClanahan writes in The Sarah Book. “If you live long enough you start losing things.”

McClanahan loses his parents and his friends. He loses his temper and his grip on reality. But The Sarah Book is most notably a semi-autobiographical account of how he lost his marriage. The Scott McClanahan in this book has spent almost fifteen years in a relationship with Sarah, loving her the entire time, but that doesn’t stop him from doing a lot of bad things. He drinks gin while driving with his kids in the backseat. At a strip club, he takes a lap dance from his former student. For no reason, he partially burns a Bible he and Sarah received as a wedding present and puts it back on the bookshelf. Sometimes Scott loses things, and sometimes he destroys them.

Scott McClanahan the author lives in Beckley, West Virginia, and he’s been publishing remarkable fictionalized autobiographies for almost ten years. The level of truth in his stories about his uncle Nathan who suffered from cerebral palsy, or being routinely molested by another boy while growing up, is unclear — but McClanahan has books about both subjects with protagonists who share his name. Did he actually destroy the household computer with a sledgehammer while Sarah watched him, crying? “How do you know this is true?” McClanahan writes in his appendix to Crapalachia, a set of endnotes that confounds even as it makes a gesture toward clarifying. “Is it because I told you so?”

Depending on how you count, this is McClanahan’s sixth or his seventh book, all of which take place in his home state. The author’s rapid snapshots of his childhood and life in Appalachia add up to a massive mosaic that shines with vibrant scenes and dangerous characters. He hasn’t just captured a slice of a place; he’s built a whole world, complicated and full of contradictions. And he does it with a tender lyric twang.

McClanahan is a self-described literary outsider. In a two-sentence biography he once wrote, he used one of them to note, “He hasn’t won any awards or fellowships.” He told his agent not to submit his stories to magazines. In a 2014 Facebook post, he announced his (unsuccessful) withdrawal from the Morning News’s annual Tournament of Books. In his public life, too, McClanahan is elusive. He flirts with the profound while discouraging his audience from taking any of this too seriously.

That comes as something of a relief, because The Sarah Book is gritty and upsetting, and features a protagonist who is sometimes hard to like. Scott the character is oversensitive, drunk a lot, and socially inappropriate. But the book is also one of the most heartbreaking you’ll find this year — because Scott and Sarah really love each other.

Sarah is a nurse, and one winter night she comes home crying because she’s broken a patient’s leg. “She told me all you have to do is find a 90-year-old woman who weighed 85 pounds and then just move her a little bit,” Scott says. “Then you’d see what would happen, you’d see how fragile people are.” So Scott does something beautiful. He books a hotel room on a warm beach. He finds restaurants to eat at and things to do, and he surprises Sarah with the printed reservations. “Thank God,” Sarah says. She tells him if she had to spend one more day in this shit place, she was going to kill herself.

But something goes wrong and Sarah can’t get away, and every night she comes home sad. So Scott does another beautiful thing. He goes to Walmart and gets bags of sand, a kiddie pool, and an inflatable horse and water wings. Back at the house he rearranges the living room. “Take your shoes off,” Scott tells Sarah when she gets home from work. “Be careful because the sand is really hot today.” It’s snowing outside, and Sarah laughs as she steps into the pool. “Pretend,” Scott says.

The stories and chapters in McClanahan’s books merge, interrupt one another, double back, and build to heartrending crescendos. McClanahan brings a mesmerizing lyricism to the page that makes even bad living seem lovely. “I looked out over the lot and the locust trees and parking lot,” he writes. “I could see the back of the stores and I knew I was different because I could say it looked beautiful. I could mean it, too.”

Scott and Sarah have to go to a mandated parenting class before they can get divorced. Sarah tries to ignore Scott during the class, but he shows her funny pictures and makes her laugh. Out in the parking lot he asks her if she remembers his old love letters. She smiles like none of this bothers her. Scott doesn’t understand how with the separation papers filed, and the parenting class finished, and the divorce date coming, this doesn’t bother her.

As this simple scene pivots, it captures the disarmingly modest ways McClanahan reels the reader in. He makes a dark scene light by making jokes and sticking to the particulars: crossword puzzles, impatient bailiffs, and a picture of himself in a bunny costume. Then, out in the parking lot, he slowly rips your heart out.

Scott stops at a red light as he’s driving away and looks over. He sees Sarah in her Honda CR-V. “She had her hands to her face. And she was just sitting in her car and she was weeping,” Scott says. “She was wiping away the tears from her face with a wadded-up handkerchief and she was trying to stop crying, but still she sobbed. I saw that she wasn’t a rock. She was just a person who I had loved and now she was gone. I was gone, too.”

 

The Sarah Book
By Scott McClanahan
Tyrant Books
150 pp.

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