May 23, 2014
If airport travel is in your plans this summer, I can’t think of a better writer to recommend than Scott McClanahan. True, he’s good anywhere you read him, but his books are perfect voyage companions—they’re funny, they’re quick, and as rooted in Appalachia as they are, they’ll get you thinking hard about where you’re from and where you’re headed. I was flying to Beijing last summer when I first read Crapalachia: A Biography of Place, and on my way to South Carolina this past winter when I tore through the freshly minted Hill William.
I like Scott McClanahan because he’s bold and raw and unapologetically emotional. And he’s fearless, too. He’s not afraid of hitting readers with an “O god” or an “O my god” or sometimes just the occasional “O!” There’s no clear separation between the mundane and the sublime, and his characters come to big conclusions in seemingly simple ways. McClanahan’s adolescent narrator can look at his mother at a time when she’s psychologically unwell and say, “She was smiling and crying at the same time like her face couldn’t decide whether to cry to smile. I knew this was the story of the world.”
And McClanahan’s readers think, “Yes, that’s probably true.”
The vignettes in Hill William are often heartbreaking because of how earnest and authentic McClanahan’s characters seem. But McClanahan isn’t afraid of the raunchy or the dirty, either. He isn’t afraid to create a character that will “push [his] thumb down deep into the dirt…start digging” and literally “fuck the earth.”
Hill William is a great story—a novel told through many great linked stories—but it’s one that is simply told, without lengthy descriptions, political musings or overly complicated prose. And yet it’s still filled with honest and beautiful passages like these:
I stayed out after the sun went down and the mountain sky became purple. I went to the side of the mountain road behind our house and plopped my bike down. There was an old hill there, clear cut and cleaned off by an old timber company and it made a nice place for sitting and looking out over the valley and Rainelle. I looked out over the continentals on the street below me and in these houses were people walking around in the lights they just turned on. I sat and felt lonely because I was only one person and couldn’t be each of them.
Scott McClanahan’s style of storytelling is perfect for the stories he tells—stories that are raw, but also beautiful and true in their rawness, complex and honest in their apparent simplicity.
Justin Brouckaert’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Passages North and Gigantic Sequins, among other publications. He is a James Dickey Fellow in Fiction at the University of South Carolina.