Book Review: 'Stories' and 'Stories II,' by Scott McClanahan

You’re going to want to keep your eye on Scott McClanahan, since he’s a terrific writer and a little sly. Who knows where this all will end?


April 9, 2011

You’re going to want to keep your eye on Scott McClanahan, since he’s a terrific writer and a little sly. Who knows where this all will end?

I saw McClanahan read recently in a tiny space in Washington, DC, for the Vermin on the Mount series. The town was full of writers, editors, publishers and academics for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference, and let’s just say McClanahan, with his near high-and-tight haircut like a young Marine veteran’s, his fine tenor voice with its West Virginian drawl, and his courtly manners, played pleasantly against expectations. He read a couple of terrific flash fictions, shouted a manifesto-renunciation-of-literary-tradition-and-advertisement-for-self that was a little nutty and a lot brilliant, and transubstantiated one flavor of Campbell’s soup into another. Then he sang quietly in the voice of his mother at bedtime, rocking side-to-side with his eyes closed, and brought some in the audience close to tears. People I had spoken to before the event built up one of the other readers, saying she was wild, crazy and unforgettable, but it was McClanahan’s performance that shook me.

Scott McClanahan has two collections of stories (Six Gallery Press, 2008 and 2010), and I urge you to buy them now. Stories I (with police mug shots of McClanahan’s grandfather on the cover) and Stories II (gnarly toes hanging over a flip-flop) are both about 150 pages and contain some 18 short or very-short stories each. The writing is seemingly simple, brief and to the point; even the typography makes it easy on us, with large print, generous spacing and a simple, sans-serif font.

In these books you’ll encounter a hernia dog, a fight over a thrown bologna sandwich, and a man named Poop Deck Pappy, “who goes to the wakes at Wallace and Wallace funeral home, even though he never knew the people being waked.” You’ll witness what the Prettiest Girl in Texas is hiding up her sleeve, watch a possum “become the most beautiful star shooting across the dark dark sky,” and see a young boy dressed like a baby doll imagine himself “a soldier in some far away land, searching for something beautiful to kill.” All stories are written naturally, in a conversational tone, as if taken in dictation from a narrator named Scott.

The voice in both books sounds like the guy who stayed in town after you left, telling tales over cheap beers as you catch up: “The last time I saw Randy Doogan was just a couple of years ago. […] There was my friend Wayne, and Wayne’s woman, and my friend Keith, and this teenage girl he was dating, who wasn’t even out of high school yet, and who Keith later got pregnant. And my friend B.J. was there too.” The voice is calm, curious, tolerant, forgiving—except for that bologna sandwich—and wide-open to the world it observes.

Nowhere in the fictions do you get the sense that McClanahan’s performing, not even as the preacher he sometimes resembles when he’s on the road spreading the literary word. There’s little hint that he’s a college teacher (there’s one story about teaching in a prison), that he doesn’t live in Rainelle, West Virginia, anymore, or that he’s fully capable of discussing Bresson, Antonioni, Sam Shepard, and Beckett. He doesn’t write about his own ambition, dissert on aesthetics, use his experience as a maker of short films, or tell us about process, such as supposedly knocking out stories so easily that he may stop writing them at any time. His eyeball is transparent.

True simplicity is neither simple nor easy. “Simplicity is the highest goal, achievable when you have overcome all difficulties,” writes Frederic Chopin. What must be recognized in McClanahan’s work is its shaped quality, when maybe he doesn’t want you to see that at all. Stories is a train wreck of spelling, punctuation, grammar, and formatting errors—several paragraphs are printed twice, for instance, and there are neither page numbers nor a table of contents—which McClanahan has said was a conscious choice, evidently to make the work seem roughhewn or maybe mountain punk. He now seems to regret that choice, having said he gets “tired of telling people that Dylan’s Basement Tapes was meant to sound like shit.” Stories II has fewer mechanical errors, but one still wishes him the editor he deserves, and the wider audience that might follow. His publisher hasn’t updated the press’s website in so long that neither McClanahan nor the books are listed there.

All of this belies the accomplishment of the stories, how lean, lyrical, hard and humane they often are. They’re also often true. I don’t mean that they’re set in Rainelle, a real place down in Greenbrier County, with a population of about 1,500, or that some of their events no doubt occurred. I mean that McClanahan has found his own little postage stamp of native soil and writes about its people so convincingly that their problems and misunderstandings transcend to become instantly recognizable.

He portrays the marginalized respectfully but roundedly. The narrator’s dad is by turns a guy who beats a teen boy for sitting on his Oldsmobile, insists stubbornly on being arrested in a routine traffic stop, yet goes out of his way to give money to an elderly man and his illiterate daughter so they can eat a meal. The people of West Virginia are never—ever—portrayed in the sensationalistic manner that some writers use in their “haints and hillbillies” books. In McClanahan’s fiction a double-wide appears because there are double-wides in the world and people live in them and sometimes run strip clubs in them; they’re never a shortcut to personality.

The stories are filled with true speech (“You got the shit pains, boy?”); true emotion (“No, don’t go. Please don’t go. It’s good to talk to someone. I’ve just been stuck in this house and I’m so lonely. Please don’t go. I’m so lonely.”); true humor (“Now we’re going to stay with my Mom, but I’m just warning you—if she starts talking about her spirit animal or healing your pain body—don’t think anything about it. See, my mom is a witch.”); and true mystery (on a guy riding a bike with no chain, holding a running chainsaw: “But I knew there was something about him that meant something. And if I ever found out what it was—then maybe I’d finally know the meaning of my life.”). The pieces range from a horrifying and moving short story reminiscent of Robert Frost’s “Out, Out—”, to an allegory of pink ping-pong balls, to a silly joke, to isolated bits of lyricism and longing.

Finding the narrative spines of stories is a great talent. It’s another talent to leave them elegantly unadorned, since the bones can be fleshed out in infinite ways. McClanahan has both talents, which readers will take pleasure in. His books also could be used in creative writing workshops to show how one finds stories in the first place in different gestures, ideas, characters, and feelings. Even when his endings are occasionally forced or falsely lyrical, they’d make for productive discussions about choices made.

“Yo El Rey,” it says on the back of Stories II, big white type knocked out of the hot-pink cover. It’s a sentiment from “Kidney Stones,” a magical story in which the speaker becomes a new messiah after passing a stone shaped like a crucifix. (Here’s McClanahan reading it at a different venue from the one I went to.) The story’s comic but is too ambitious to be a joke, and I suspect the back cover speaks a similar truth about the author. I, for one, believe what it’s saying.

Scott McClanahan’s Stories V has just been released. (Playfully, there was no Stories III or Stories IV.) Race you to it.


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