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Scott McClanahan

Scott McClanahan is an American writer and filmmaker. He lives in Beckley, West Virginia and is the author of three books: Stories, Stories II and Stories V!.

Blurbs

"[Crapalachia is] a wild and inventive book, unquestionably fresh of spirit, and totally unafraid to break formalisms to tell it like it was."

– Vice

"Part memoir, part hillbilly history, part dream, McClanahan embraces humanity with all its grit, writing tenderly of criminals and outcasts, family and the blood ties that bind us."

– Interview Magazine

"A brilliant, unnerving, beautiful curse of a book that will both haunt and charmingly engage readers for years and years and years."

– J.A. Tyler

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Crapalachia

A Portrait of Contemporary Rural Dysfunction

04/01/13

As a product of the blah-inducing New England suburban sprawl, I remember being fascinated by Appalachia. That rugged, heavily forested mountain corridor that isn’t out West but is still mysterious territory to a child of I-95’s coastal homogeneity, its intrigue made large by middle school textbooks describing the fortitude of the legendary settlers of the country’s first real frontier and later sensational reports of all-out clan warfare and moonshiner vigilantes. The trees seemed like they’d be bigger, and so did the people. Scott McClanahan’s Crapalachia is nothing and everything like those stories. His memoir of growing up in backwoods West Virginia – a broken cultural microcosm wrapped in a tourist-friendly haze, languishing amidst the specters of mining casualties and even older ghosts – is more an unflinching, heartbreaking, and laugh-inducing portrait of contemporary rural dysfunction than a compendium of tall tales, though there are plenty of those as well.

A prolific short story writer, McClanahan imbues his mosaic of brief yet enduring memory bursts with same easy, gritty exuberance that makes his fiction so distinctly habit-forming. From the outset, he grabs the reader, initiating him into the captivating Southern Gothic grotesqueries of his adolescence. There’s Grandma Ruby, the deeply flawed but endearing matriarch whose hobbies include extreme manipulation and taking photographs of corpses, and who cares for 52-year-old Uncle Nathan, a sufferer of cerebral palsy who’s also a big fan of six packs and Walker, Texas Ranger sans the irony. The dozen other aunts and uncles, distinguished by the Y sounds at the end of their names (Stanley, Elgie, Terry) and a proclivity for verbal brevity (“sheeeeeeeeeeeeet”). And the embarrassingly neurotic Little Bill whose hardcore OCD will make you never want to listen to Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind” again. McClanahan shows a deep regard for not only the people of his home state but also the facets of its unique history, embellishing his painfully funny, jarring prose with bits of local and family lore, coal miner death tolls, fried chicken recipes, and the repeated exclamations (“What the fuck?”) of a perverse country preacher striving for a taste of the supernatural but only allowed to choke down the harshness of the world’s absurdity: “I knew that the dying were selfish, and the living were too.”

Subtitled, “A Biography of a Place,” Crapalachia is a fascinating and thoroughly entertaining delving into the inextricable linkage of a writer and where he’s from, but it’s also a gut-stabbing meditation on the universality and pointlessness of suffering. Casual teenage viciousness, ambivalent and at times borderline criminal parenting, drug use, and especially death – what McClanahan cheekily anoints as “THE THEME OF THIS BOOK AND ALL BOOKS” – are motifs as prevalent as the 40 ounces the author and his friends slug to relieve constant boredom and a sinister, gnawing suspicion:

I awoke and saw that life was one big practical joke full of pain. Someone was laughing at us. Someone was torturing us. I remember being at Grandma Ruby’s as a little boy and crushing the ants on her sidewalk.

But there’s also hope, a fiercely ingrained hope for better days ahead and a deep-rooted cultural satisfaction in making the best of a tough situation, a sense of resilience McClanahan admires in his coal miner forebears and ostensibly in himself. It is evident in his poignant attempts to prolong the legacy and memory of his dead grandmother and uncle by depositing bags of Appalachian dirt throughout the country, in the tenderness he shows an illiterate child while substitute teaching. It is also a feeling he desperately wants to share with the reader, whom he addresses at the end of most of the short chapters, a call and response technique usually employed, interestingly enough, by the religious zealots he often ridicules. This loud plea for inclusivity, for me, is ultimately what sets Crapalachia apart and above other recent works of autobiography. In order to find meaning in the past and to solidify his identity, McClanahan wants, no needs the reader to acknowledge the harsh realities of his own decaying life. Only through understanding and acknowledging a shared condition can we create the solidarity necessary for survival: “We pass the torch of life for one another like runners in the night. I WILL forever be reaching for you. PLEASE keep reaching for me. Please.”

Daunting, but undeniably powerful. This punchy, inimitable book is one of the best memoirs I can remember reading, a prescient and preposterous ode to Americana’s charms and failures with enough greasiness to stick to your bones like homemade gravy for as long as you let it.

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