Why The F*ck Aren’t You Reading? is a feature where the columnist spotlights a writer who has a dedicated following and is well known within the writing community, but hasn’t achieved the elephant-in-the-room style success of a Stephen King or Gillian Flynn—But they deserve to, dammit! Hopefully the column will help gain the author featured a few more well deserved readers.
I keep coming back to this Woodrell quote any time I decide to write about rural fiction.
I think what catches most people off guard about these rural areas is the viciousness of the poverty and how it’s staring right at you. Like where I live, you have very little economic zoning, so you may have a very nice home, but you may be on the same block with what are basically shacks, so you’re in no way segregated out and you’re all very aware of each other. I think for a lot of readers that seems a little exotic. And we’ll see if this taste lasts long. But I don’t think it’s going anywhere any time soon.
It’s fitting when it comes to a lot of readers. The woods were where most families went on occasional vacations and weekend getaways. Most readers grew up in tidy suburbs, and the idea of people actually living out there was as foreign a concept as people living at Disney World. But some of us were there. I grew up in a small community sandwiched in-between the two slightly larger communities of Wrightwood and Phelan, California. Where I grew up was commonly referred to as Desert Front Road; it was referred to as such because that’s exactly what it was: A desert road. Most folks who lived there called it Oaks Spring Valley, though. It was fifteen or twenty miles of snaking dirt road that clouded the air with yellow dust during the summer; would be buried under thick, wet snow and ice during the winter; and wash away and become impassable during the spring thaws. And yes, we were the type of community people came to to ride their ATV’s and go skiing when the snow came. Everyone who visited would typically have the same expressions on their faces when they’d see us come out of our houses or drive past us riding on the school bus.
The look said: “Wow, people actually live here.”
I think what attracts me most to rural fiction is that I’m in search of commonality; shared experience. And true, when I read Woodrell, Brown, Campbell, Benedict, Bill, etc., the off brand lunatics who often occupy their stories are familiar, but most of them are the types of folks my parents strongly discouraged (threatened) me to stay away from. No, what I was looking for most is the familiarity of the little things: The smell of chimney smoke on a winter morning; the way your body hummed after you spent the whole day riding your dirt bike; spending hours up a tree, hammering boards into it with scavenged wood and nails; the rush of panic when your cigarette ash catches a field of dry brush on fire and spreads far beyond your control.
Most rural fiction doesn’t touch on these kind of things (this, of course, is far from a blanket statement). These details are minor window dressing, description meant to add color to a broader picture. In fact, I didn’t even realize that this is what I was looking for when I was reading rural fiction, at lease until I stumbled upon the stories of Scott McClanahan.
The Skinny aka Just The Facts and Nothing But The Facts
McClanahan lives in Beckley, West Virginia and is the author of six books: Stories (2008), Stories II (2009),Stories V! (2011), The Collected Works of Scott McClanahan Vol. 1 (2012), Crapalachia (2013) and Hill William(2013). McClanahan is also a co-founder of Holler Presents, a West Virginia-based production and small press company.
The Work aka Why You Should Be Reading This Guy
The little things I mentioned are what make McClanahan’s stories stand out from the current crop of rural storytellers. The big picture isn’t meth cooks and men and women grizzled hard from a life of poverty and poor nutrition. Yeah, those characters are there, but they’re floating around the perimeter, just like they do in the real world. McClanahan’s focus is the everyday; a deft combination of memory and fiction that is comparable to the best of Larry Brown and Charles Bukowski.
The comparison to Bukowski or Brown is an easy one, and a bit of a cheat. McClanahan’s tone and language are conversational and simple, like you’re sitting in a buddy’s garage sucking down a couple of beers and he’s telling you about this girl he had a crush on and peeping through her window to catch a glimpse of her titties, only to find out she’s stuffing her bra and that she really liked your friend, Billy, and she was only cozying up to you to get closer to him.
His stories are your stories; ones you’ve heard and told a million times, but you can’t help but enjoy hearing again, much like Brown and Bukowski at their best. The difference being that the malaise (Brown) and misogyny (Bukowski) which made their prose uniquely their own is stripped away and replaced with joy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m by no means saying Brown and Buk didn’t have joy swimming through their stories, but it was so diluted by their angst and experience. And perhaps it’s that lack of age and experience that sets McClanahan into a space and genre uniquely his own.
Where To Start aka What Book Should I Read First, Smart Guy?
Take your pick, Hill William or Crapalachia.
Both books, structurally and thematically, are similar. Both are about McClanahan’s childhood and adolescence. But what separates the two is this: Crapalachia is the story of what makes McClanahan a decent man. His joy, his morals, of how he gives love and how he receives it. Hill William is the story of his darkness; of his anxiety and self abuse, and, yes, how he gives and receives love.
Crapalachia is the story of his upbringing by his grandmother and disabled uncle. The three of them make for an odd family unit. The grandmother is needy and controlling. A brick wall of overbearing southern woman; frail, sickly despite her size, but more than willing to rip the head off anyone who dares threaten her son or grandson. Her son, Nathan, is confined to a wheelchair and utterly dependent upon his mother and McClanahan. Nathan is religious to a fault, naive to the outside world and heartbreakingly lonely. There are scenes in Crapalachia that simultaneously evoke hilarity and heartbreak all within a single paragraph. Such as the story of McClanahan and Uncle Nathan going to eat at a local burger place. They’re waiting for their food when suddenly Nathan has to go to the bathroom. The restroom is a single stall and occupied. They wait, and Nathan simply can’t hold it anymore. When they finally get into the toilet they’re there to change Nathan out of his soiled clothes instead of Nathan relieving himself. The discomfort, humiliation, and, yes, humor, of the situation leaves you in both tears of laughter and utter sadness.
For me, Hill William is a novel of sexual discovery, and unfortunately, it’s rather ugly. Hill William is the story of McClanahan’s friendship with an older neighbor boy named Derrick.
I just wanted to be cool. Derrick was a lot older than I was (like fifteen), and I thought he was the coolest. I was nine. He was always shooting guns, or sighting his bow, or chewing tobacco, or talking about how he was going to kick some guy’s ass.
Derrick is the very definition of odd. He’s slow witted, but in the same breath, predatory. He’s obviously not accepted by his peer group, so he spends his free time alone or hanging out with much younger children who are easily impressed by his meager personality. From the very beginning of McClanahan and Derrick’s relationship, Derrick attempts to initiate sexual contact. McClanahan, at first, resists, but eventually succumbs to Derrick. These are sad, desperate passages which McClanahan only skims over, never giving them emotional weight. But he doesn’t need to. We know how evil and damaging these experiences are and McClanahan doesn’t need to dwell on them, because they happened and will continue to live on in his memory (and in physical actions, such as punching himself until his face swells any time his girlfriend becomes upset with him) and for us, the reader. Eventually Derrick becomes marginalized in McClanahan’s life, seen as the lonely, toothless fuck up the rest of the world sees him as.