Elegy for a Hillbilly Marriage: A Review of The Sarah Book by Scott McClanahan
By Mike Murphy.
Scott McClanahan, The Sarah Book (Tyrant Books, 2017)
James Baldwin once said, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” I would only add the name “Scott McClanahan” to the end of the quote.
There is plenty of pain and heartbreak in his new novel, The Sarah Book, the semi-biographical story of his marriage and divorce. But with McClanahan there is always more. So much more. It is why I love him. It is why I hope he never leaves me.
“These are my people. This is West Virginia,” he writes while living in his car in a Wal-Mart parking lot after Sarah kicks him out. “They were the people who the rest of the world didn’t want and they were the ones who didn’t belong anymore. They were the people with amputated arms and they were the people in wheelchairs and they were the people with face tattoos and scars. I was a scar too. I was a giant human scar.”
If you laid a ruler on a map of West Virginia and drew a line connecting the three small towns of Milton, Cheylan and Rainelle, the line would be perfectly straight and measure exactly one-hundred miles. If you drew it in red ink it would resemble a scar cutting across the belly of the state. In 2017, this is the heart of the new “Trump Country”. Unemployment, mental illness, depression, divorce rates and opioid addiction run rampant through the hills and hollows of the Kanawah River Valley (aka “Chemical Valley”) like a pack of loosed, rabid dogs. If you weren’t from there you’d feel grateful. You might think nothing good could ever come out of towns like those.
But you’d be wrong.
This is fertile ground. McClanahan would argue it’s holy ground. This is the land that he mines, digging stories out of the earth like shiny coal from the seam.
McClanahan has been quietly honing his writing chops for years. He is a fearlessly honest and inventive writer. Sometimes he is brutal. He writes as if he might be the illegitimate literary offspring produced from an accidental coupling of Flannery O’Connor and Harry Crews after a long night of bourbon drinking and something going awry during the birth.
McClanahan, whose previous books include Crapalachia and Hill William, writes stories with a strong sense of place. This place. They are stories about forgotten people living in forgotten places, about drug addicts and fast food joints and shirtless men riding bicycles down the road carrying running chainsaws in one hand. But McClanahan knows he is really writing about all of us, whether we know it or not. He is a master at stripping us down to our common humanity and forcing us to stare at it. Whether we like it or not.
The Sarah Book is, on its face, a simple and common story: two people fall in love, get married and end up divorced. While officially labelled “Fiction”, as with most of McClanahan’s previous work it blends autobiography and fiction with heavy doses of graphic (sometimes crude) humour, surrealism, poetic prose and philosophical epiphanies into an existentialist stew of a book. But you can tell – you can just feel it – most of The Sarah Book is very real. As real as a gut punch.
Then there are the beautiful parts that just shatter you. This about the birth of his and Sarah’s daughter:
There’s a lightning storm outside. It’s smashing and crashing around us and cutting through the dark and the baby girl is pulled from the womb and given to her mother and then there is one more lightning bolt that goes Boom…We see the baby glowing and flashing and on fire, sparkling like flashers beside a fatal accident. The lights go out and then they come back on, and when they do the little girl has a lightning bolt on her nose. She is crying. Her name is Iris… We are alive.
Or this, where Scott, having just set the divorce date with Sarah, is at his parents when his mother discovers him on the bathroom floor suffering a panic attack in the middle of the night, his baby son Sam in his arms:
Then she sat down beside me on the floor and I felt ashamed. I cried and punched the tears away from my eyes with the bottom parts of my hand. Then I told her I was a thorn tree in the whirlwind. I laughed because I didn’t know what that meant and she whispered, “What? Tell me Scott. Tell me.” And so I told her that Sarah and I had signed the papers already and the divorce date was set. I told her Sarah said she hadn’t loved me in over two years… My mother watched her child who was now a man look at her and cry. And now – she could do nothing.
Damn you Scott McClanahan for your honesty. Damn you for making us feel your brokenness.
Or was it our own brokenness you made us feel?
This is McClanahan’s seventh book in nine years. He has said The Sarah Book took five years to write. This isn’t surprising. To write honestly of a failed marriage requires some perspective. To write of it successfully requires some healing. You can feel the healing taking place on the pages. It is as if McClanahan is purging himself once again, page by page, just like he and Sarah once did on their “days of debauchery”, sharing with the reader their most intimate secrets. It is McClanahan’s best and most mature writing to date.
But back to those three little towns…
A long time ago there was a skinny, obsessive boy from Cheylan named Jerry. He too suffered from depression. He spent his youth shooting a basketball a million times into a hoop tacked onto a garage, alone, in all kinds of weather, day after day, until he became “The Logo” and “Mr. Clutch” and one of the greatest players of all time. He shot daggers. His last name was West.
And there once lived a strange, sensitive man-child in Milton named Breece. He also suffered from depression and only published six short stories during his lifetime but, arguably, may have been one of the best American writers of the twentieth century. We’ll never know for sure since he put a shotgun in his mouth when he was only twenty-six. His last name was Pancake.
Scott McClanahan grew up in Rainelle. He writes in the book about his addictions and bouts of depression. “I saw myself working a job I hated and all of the tiny suicides of life. I knew there were a million ways to kill myself and I couldn’t wait to try them all.” He details a pathetic suicide attempt using only Tylenol PM and Pepto Bismol and we know this is a lost man.
Like Jerry West, McClanahan is an obsessive literary gym rat, working alone, perfecting his craft, obsessing over sentences, trying to perfect them into daggers as if each one was a jump shot at the buzzer. He claims in the book to own “the greatest small volume library in the state… 5,000 volumes”. And, like Breece D’J Pancake, he writes beautiful sentences that can make you weep, sentences that drip with sadness and heartache as solid as a hickory fence post on a West Virginia mountainside. “She never wanted to be trapped and yet she didn’t know that everything that winds up living in the mountains ends up getting trapped there.”
Three men. Three towns. One hundred miles. It’s all much closer than it appears.
A Chines proverb goes something like: “To be sincere in love is to be grotesque.”
Some credit should be given to the title subject of this book, McClanahan’s former wife Sarah. This book is their love story – grotesqueness and all – the story of two flawed people who produced two children who will forever link their lives together. There are many beautiful passages but there are also brutally honest descriptions that splay open the troubled aspects of their marriage. “We fought about all the tiny things. We fought about nothing and we fought about everything. It was glorious.” With McClanahan it is sometimes hard to tell where the line blurs from truth into fiction and some of the most shocking (and hilarious) stories are his recollections of Sarah’s experiences as a hospital nurse, involving graphic descriptions of bodily functions, sexual appendages and jaded nurses.
She told me about how one of the nurses used a credit card to pay for a breast augmentation and then defaulted on her credit card. Sarah asked the nurse if she was nervous about not paying back the money for her operation. The ER nurse just pushed out her chest and wiggled her tits around and said, “I’m not worried. They don’t repossess titties, girl.”
Nothing is off-limits here.
McClanahan even lays bare Sarah’s personal grooming habits and writes about episodes with drugs, bulimia and an unwanted pregnancy from a previous boyfriend. It is raw and incredibly personal and I’m sure it must have required mutual trust and a level of generosity. But there is no tinge of malice. Sarah is never portrayed as unlikable or as the villain. These were clearly two people who loved each other – and probably still do.
The Sarah Book is quirky, incorporating family photos, an invisible crossword puzzle, and something only McClanahan could pull off: images of both Sesame Street’s Grover and mass murderer Richard Speck. There are also talking chicken wings, a blind dog and a stripper with haemorrhoids. McClanahan knows how to make a reader laugh as well as cry, often on the same page. And it all works.
At the end of the book, McClanahan hints at his and Sarah’s détente in a scene over an awkward shared meal at a hamburger joint with their new partners: “We didn’t have anything to say to one another,” he writes. “We were called a family.”
In Scott McClanahan’s world, we are all one big mixed-up family.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mike Murphy is a writer and poet. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, April 4th, 2017.