Readers, in the main, don’t like short as much as long. They want to lose themselves in the big novels. They want something they can’t get from movies and TV. They want (what they consider to be) their money’s worth. They don’t necessarily care about prose as much as plot. And that’s fine (I just finished the 503-page The Casual Vacancy; you’d like it; Rowling is one angry bird), but they’re missing out on books like the 169-page Crapalachia.
McClanahan writes about growing up in a small town in West Virginia in the ‘90s. Roughly half is about living with both his more-or-less crazy (or arguably evil) grandmother and her son who is afflicted with severely debilitating cerebral palsy, and half is about moving in with his friend during his adolescence; the friend’s mother is never there and they’re essentially living without adult supervision—McClanahan never explains his own parents’ absence.
He seems to remember an incident, write a short section about it, double-space down, write another short section about it—sometimes he free-associates a section that has not much to do with the incident—and the result is a kind of memoir-collage. This structure also makes for fast reading—the double-spacings are like breaths between sprints.
McClanahan is one of those writers who love to blur the lines between fiction and what actually happened, for whatever precious and/or tyrannical reason: “Reality is mine to determine. Ha!” Yes, I know, truth is up for grabs. But accuracy isn’t. The book’s copyright page features this: “Please see the Appendix and Notes section on pg. 159 for a statement from the Author regarding the imagined elements of this true story.” Theimagined elements of this truestory? Am I the only one for whom that phrase invokes Ronald Reagan? Plus, when you read the Appendix and learn which elements are imagined, it’s sort of like hearing McClanahan say, “Psych!”
But I bought his next book right when it came out, so he won.
Hill William, also set in Appalachia, also pretty short, is either a novel or a book of short stories that share the same narrator (whose name is Scott) and, frequently, the same characters.
At first, Hill William throws into relief what makes Crapalachia such a unique book: in Crapalachia, McClanahan looks outward— it’s less about him than about the people he’s living with—atypical for a modern memoir. At first, Hill William seems insular, seems based on our reserve currency of dysfunction, and accordingly, feels too familiar. At first.
But you turn the pages just as rapidly as with Crapalachia, and characters become less dysfunctional and more tragic, and the town, the region, becomes its own character, meaner than the other characters—and there are some mean ones in Hill William—and by the end, the stories have combined into something greater than their sum (which quality always makes me think of Half Japanese’s album Charmed Life) and you realize that the conflict of the book that you just read (on two ninety-minute mass transit commutes, in my case) is man against nature, the nature of that mean town, that mean region. Or maybe all that meanness comes from the invisible gargoyles of the mining companies, perched on the mountains that surround these people. –Jim Woster (Two Dollar Radio, TwoDollarRadio.com / Tyrant Books, 676A 9th Ave. #153, Chicago, IL10036, NYTyrant.com)