Death: The Theme Of This Book And All Books

03/13/2013 4:00 AM |

By Scott McClanahan

(Two Dollar Radio)

McClanahan is an unparalleled live-reader, incorporating song and dance and sermons and sound recordings into his short stories. The last time I saw him perform, at Bushwick’s Fireside Follies series, he brought homemade peanut-butter fudge in a tupperware for us to share; it made movingly for a kind of literary communion. The snack was connected to a chapter from his new book Crapalachia, a terrific quasi-autobiographical chronicle of Scott McClanahan’s coming-of-age.

It’s a book about death—“the theme of this book and all books,” as one chapter-title puts it. It’s also a remarkable and rambling personal history, a loving, laughing, eye-rolling and affectionate portrait of a region, his home, the place he’s from and therefore who he is, at least in part. It’s a self-portrait indirectly; he defines himself through the people and places he loved: his uncle, his grandmother, and Danese, West Virginia. (This is not a true memoir, as it takes many liberties with the truth, listed in an appendix. It’s fictionalized non-fiction.)

The uncle has cerebral palsy, and coerces young Scott into pouring a six-pack into his feeding tube; the grandmother keeps a photo album of family funeral portraits, got a breast removed as a “preventive measure,” and takes Scott to visit the cemetery—in particular, her tombstone, which she has bought in advance and which awaits a date of death to be etched into it. In between these family stories—and those involving his hooligan friends—he stuffs lists, recipes, and standalone stories. He’s conscious of the physical space of the page like a poet, and often ends chapters, like the one that’s just a list of people he has loved, with sudden bursts of prose-poetry:

These are the names that are written inside my heart, but my heart will die one day. So I want these names to stay inside this book forever, but if this book is needed for fire, then set this book on fire. Then these names will live inside the other names, inside the invisible ashes. There is enough fire burning inside my secret heart to keep them warm for a long time.

He writes about not just people but place, telling stories of historical mining disasters, mountains and rivers. People die and their houses fall down; Crapalachia, like our lives, is haunted by dead people, gone people, and set in a place haunted by history—a history of death that stretches back infinitely. Death is as old the mountains, the rivers.

Like I said, this is a book about death, a hilarious book about death that’s plenty sad, too; but McClanahan also fights hard for optimism. His book honors those who lived and died, but also affirms that he, too, had a life—and by extension, so have we all. Nothing lasts, but, he writes, referencing Lucretius, “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.”