Crapalachia by Scott McClanahan, published by Two Dollar Radio
Reviewed by Matt Nelson
In his lecture titled “The Riddle of Poetry,” Borges stretches a quote from Bishop Berkley to fit over all of literature. “The taste of the apple is neither in the apple itself—the apple cannot taste itself—nor in the mouth of the eater. It requires a contact between them. The same thing happens to a book…What is a book? A book is a physical object in a world of physical objects. It is a set of dead symbols. Then the right reader comes along and the words, or rather the poetry behind the words (for the words themselves are mere symbols) spring into life and we have a resurrection of the word.” Scott McClanahan’s Crapalachia resurrects words. It’s an apple that tastes good. But not just good. Necessary.
“I just realized that I never look at a painting and ask, ‘Is this painting fictional or non-fictional?’ It’s just a painting.” This is in the book’s final section, Appendix and Notes, where Scott tells the truth about who is who. Uncle Stanley is actually Scott’s dad, we learn. Little Bill is a combination of two friends. And so on. But the real/not real distinction shouldn’t matter. Some readers might get hung up on genre specifications: Is this “A Biography” of Place," as the front cover tells us, tending more towards memoir, or are we reading fiction in the reality splitting cut of Ben Lerner and Sheila Heti? For our purposes (we are the Center for Fiction), Crapalachia is a novel. But this point doesn’t matter when you read McClanahan. There is a story here. There is lifeblood.
Using a fleet of gerunds, platoons of “so”s and “then”s, and practically no metaphors, McClanahan’s prose doesn’t feel easy as in slight; it feels easy as in when you bite into an apple you taste apple. Easy. Genuine. Honest. Of course those stylistic choices don’t paint a complete literary-scape. If one were to peg Crapalachia with a style, it wouldn’t be included in some Dictionary of Literary Terms and Tropes. The closest a scholar could get would be to brand McClanahan’s work as utilizing brave post-modern manipulations. Look at the chapter titles that flow from and into the text. Look at the inclusion of a recipe, a funeral notice. Look at this: “But as he was falling he looked up and there was one of his flip flops going end over end over end up uP UP into the air in slow motion.” But none of that matters autonomously. You get the feeling of guidance with this book, not po-mo trickery.
We’re invited to eat the apple, not mislead with something on a stick. If you read this book it should be because you want to taste a good book. The story is simple in the greatest connotation “simple” can have. When McClanahan writes, “They chased him around the house,” he doesn’t mean a Family Circus dotted-line over couches and dinner tables. But with the next line, “They chased him around again,” you read the preposition anew—as in, they chased him in a complete circle around the house. And the plot is simple too. This is a story of a boy growing up in Appalachia. This is a story of a man explaining childhood. This is a story of family, of disability, of leaving. This is a story only Scott McClanahan could write and he wrote it for you.
Which is what’s so great about small presses We are given, through small press endeavors, a chance to reclaim the idea of storytelling. Of course, you could ask, “Reclaim from what?” I would say unnecessary fiction. Here is a fiction that feels pertinent, not in a contemporary vein, but in a human vein.
It’s like McClanahan is giving you his apple. When the narrator speaks to you, “The theme of this book is a sound. It goes like this: Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. It’s the sound you’re hearing now, and it’s one of the saddest sounds in the world,” you literally hear the second hand clapping forward. He wants you to taste the death of a grandmother. The taste in the back of your teeth when you come back to your small hometown and your high school buddy has committed the murder of an old math teacher. I’m trying to be as vague as possible with my examples because I don’t want to ruin Nathan or Ruby, the girl with the violin or Rhonda. It’s all yours. You just have to read it, bite into it, taste it.
Crapalachia is Scott McClanahan's first novel. He has another four books of short story collections called Stories I, Stories II, Stories V!, and The Collected Works of Scott McClanahan Vol. 1. His next book, Hill William, is forthcoming August 2013. He lives in West Virginia.
Two Dollar Radio is a family-run outfit founded in 2005 with the mission to reaffirm the cultural and artistic spirit of the publishing industry. They aim to do this by presenting bold works of literary merit, each book, individually and collectively, providing a sonic progession that they believe to be too loud to ignore.