The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 25 October 2019


a Biography of a Place

by Scott McClanahan

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Do you hear it? It's the theme for this book, and indeed, of all books that touch the deep relevance to all of us of the passage of time, memory and (as much as we deny its reality for ourselves) death. It ain't pretty. Writing that is nakedly aware of this mutual experience tends to grab us in unexpected ways, to tell us of our common emotional realities. Looking at a book with a self-consciously provocative and humorous title, we may be knocked off our guard. That sudden realization that there is much more to its author's intent is part of the compelling enjoyment of Scott McClanahan's reflection on teenaged years in West Virginia coal country. As in Kurt Vonnegut's theme of loneliness, a yearning for a greater human family, McClanahan reminds of Time itself and its relentlessly fatal impact on our lives, our families, our memories, and the common imperative to realize the preciousness of the Present.

So, we come to Beckley and Danese West Virginia and meet McClanahan's friends, fact and semi-fiction, standing up on their own or a little mashed up, names changed and really named. The story takes place during the author's teenaged years, living most of the time with his grandmother Ruby and his uncle Nathan, who has cerebral palsy. Scott's crazy friends Bill, Naked Joe and others offer their notes of chaos and oddity. They're an interesting bunch, particularly Ruby and Nathan, for whom McClanahan clearly has great affection. There are adventures down at the funeral home, the cemetery, the hospital and over a checkerboard. There are tales and recipes, births and deaths (but mostly deaths). Their stories risk running into the elegiac and Prairie Home-style comedy, but McClanahan always manages to pull them up and back into something more real. The author's knowing tone, letting the reader into his intent and the deep feelings of longing for the people he has known and lost, give the book a conversational feel, the sort of conversation you start to have after three beers. It's all rather epic, and yet the book is short and sweet, in a gritty sort of way.

There is a subgenre of literature McClanahan calls Appalachian Minstrel Show. We've all seen it. It's the kind of sweet-talking literature that sets out to evoke a romantic vision of down-home American mountain poverty. Privation and charm, perhaps. By inserting tales of mining disasters, and a grim tone of inevitability and even anger, the author sets out in opposition to that romance. Real people, real lives, zero stereotype. He mostly succeeds in that, with a slightly punkish tone to his many reflections on time, death and loss. Recommended.

(McClanahan ends his book with an appendix in which he notes the places in which his memoir most diverged from so-called objective truth (in service of a greater truth, of course). One isn't sure why he felt compelled to set the record straight on so many points, but the appendix does serve to illuminate the writer's process.)

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