Scott McClanahan’s Crapalachia (Two Dollar Radio, March 2013), a memoir of growing up in West Virginia, is a brilliant, unnerving, beautiful curse of a book that will both haunt and charmingly engage readers for years and years and years. A compelling, compressed personal history that weaves together threads of heart-breaking and brutal truths with characters evolved into hyperboles of themselves, Crapalachia taunts the line between memoir and fiction, teasing us with the inability to know which is which. Too, like McClanahan’s earlier story collections, the anecdotes and tales that wend upward to form Crapalachia are full of gravel and grit and wit and wonder, stories as rugged and rusty as McClanahan’s upbringing.
That is the short version. The long version goes like this:
In the front of our home we have a maple tree lined with birdhouses. The branches are stark and leafless in winter, making the birdhouses sad in their openness. But when the sun goes and the Christmas lights we’ve strung are glowing in gentle arcs around and throughout the limbs, the whole yard is overtaken with pretty. Crapalachia is like that.
The Catcher in the Rye ends with this line: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” Scott McClanahan penned these lines: “I wanted to write down these names so that I can remember them one day when everyone else has forgotten. I wanted to write a list of all the people I had ever known and keep them in my heart.” Crapalachia is like that.
There are a thousand metaphors I could rifle through in an attempt to build the perfect pronouncement of this book’s genius, but no metaphor is great enough to capture its true importance. And in case readers believe I’m simply blowing smoke, clouding the room in niceties, in the over-exaggerations of an indie book lover, here are some of the key elements of Crapalachia, the ones that, for me, make this a book to be read and re-read:
Crapalachia is funny. Super funny. The jokes are tied to stories, those kinds of laughs, like where we learn that Bill’s friends stole his camera and took pictures they knew would exasperate him:
“Then he kept flipping and what did he see?”
“He saw trees.”
“He saw flowers.”
“He saw muscles.”
“He saw dogshit.”
“He saw giant piles of dogshit.”
“He saw giant piles of nasty ass dogshit.”
“It was steaming dogshit that would burn into all eternity—as if the only thing that survived was dogshit. IT IS.”
Crapalachia tells of a place both in the geography of our world and in the seams of our living: “I sat in school and I read about how everything changes even in Crapalachia. I read about how the miners became machines, and the loggers became the machines and the tiny roads turned into interstates and the towns became fast food drive thru’s and gas stations and the people became people to serve tourists and let the tourists laugh at their accents.”
Crapalachia is violent and disturbing and yet still poetically, charmingly sentimental. There is the scene where Butch falls on icy steps and “break[s] his face,” there is Nathan’s sad and rough disconnect from his “true love”, there is Ruby’s odd but well-meaning attempts to snap a picture with the deceased bodies of her relatives. Yet all of this is only a means by which McClanahan lovingly pins memories to the page, making even the worst of it strikingly important.
Crapalachia is heartfelt. Though the book is termed “A Biography of a Place” McClanahan is really attempting to capture a loving family (and a love for his family), as if a sentence is eternity: “Then he told us how he was going to fall in love. He told us we should all try to fall in love too. He told us that love was his destiny. Then he pointed to the mountain and told us the elevation. He pointed to another mountain and told us its elevation. Then we all sat and dreamed about climbing to the top of them and looking down at the giant fucking hearts below, pumping full of blood and love. It was the destroyer of all things—this LOVE.”
Crapalachia made me want more out of this life. The final lines of Crapalachia are profound:
“This book is a time machine. The words you have just read are the past. The next page is the future. Your beautiful, young bodies and your beautiful, young faces are the present.”
“The PRESENT . . . “
“Enjoy it while it fucking lasts.”
“I want to thank you for your time, even though time doesn’t belong to you either.”
“So farewell my old friends. Farewell.”