Crapalachia by Scott McClanahan

28 Mar

At AWP last year I heard Scott McClanahan’s name and him reading for the first time. It was biblical. I talked about that here.

This year at AWP I saw Scott read again and after he was done, in the black and dirty gold haze of a basement bar he handed me this:
He swirled into the crowd after without comment, though I found him again and thanked him for the book. I’m sorry if I took away from the lovely quietness of how you gave me the book, Scott. I just don’t do well without saying Thank You, though you shouldn’t doubt this is a thank you as well.
I saw scraps of what others have said about Crapalachia before reading it, which pretty much all said *This is about death* and yes, so much so. I’m introduced to Uncle Nathan then he dies. I’m introduced to Grandma Ruby then she dies. I’m introduced to Mrs. Powell and the girl in the pink dress and her mother and they all die, and so do Rhonda and Bill and Naked Joe but not where they need a grave. They fade out, or are cut out, from what happens, though we know they’ll need a grave sooner or later.
And it’s not just the sadness or dirtiness of death, but also when it’s hilarious, when we try to overload it with meaning how it can flip us the bird:
………“We’ll now release a dove which is a symbolic representation of Ruby’s soul flying home to heaven.”
………And so they opened up the bird box and nothing happened.
………We waited.
………And then this sleepy-looking dove just crawled out, except it didn’t even look like a dove really but just a fat pigeon that somebody had painted white.
………It had a look on its face like, What the fuck? Seriously, people. What the fuck? It’s way too old to be doing this today.
………So the Wallace and Wallace guy tried to shoo it but it wouldn’t shoo.
………So the preacher repeated:  “We’ll now release the dove.”
………The Wallace and Wallace guy shooed it again. Finally the dove shot high up into the air and out and over our heads, but instead of flying away it just landed on top of this chain-linked fence. And so the Wallace and Wallace guy tried shooting it again and everyone giggled and gathered around in a circle throwing up their arms and shouting “shoo-shoo” at the bird high above. I shouted, “Shoo.” We were all shooing.
………But it wouldn’t shoo.
………And so it was.
Along with death Crapalachia doesn’t let you forget what it is to be poor. How Scott writes about Danese, West Virginia reads like a love letter to  living and feeling in a place designated by everywhere else to be a place to use poor people to get done what you don’t want to do, take risks you don’t want to take. There’s a beauty lacking all bullshit in loving these places without patronization.
……….Then we read about how you build civilization. They built the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel by digging a big ass hole in the side of a mountain.  They used a bunch of poor people to dig it.  A poor person means either their skin was dark or their accents were thick.  That’s the best way to do anything–get a bunch of poor people to dig it. So they cut and cut into the mountain but there was a problem. They didn’t wet the dust from the cut limestone–so the men developed silicosis. The men started dying by the tens and then the twenties and then the hundreds and then–the thousands? Since they were poor the company just buried them. There was an investigation a few years later but no one cared. They were poor people.
More history lessons about mine explosions and failed efforts at economic fairness in West Virginia punctuate the story, make sure you remember how little poor people seem to be given a shit about except to each other. The book is subtitled “a Biography of a Place” and Scott is forthcoming with West Virginian pockmarks and their origins, blemishes that seem unfairly inflicted rather than earned.
Vital here is repetition of a biblical kind and degree. Who begat who begat who and us, right now, squished between begats and soon a dead name in a Deuteronomy being constantly revised and updated. And there are beautiful, prophetic exhortations beside piles of dogshit and mine explosions and photo albums of dead people, all the gross truth of lives that end.
Toward the book’s conclusion, Scott talks about a flood resulting from a dam break that plowed through Buffalo Creek, West Virginia in 1972. The flood kills 125 people and afterward it’s not like anybody gets to start all over, like God could do jack shit to clean even this tiny part of the earth. Men still have to pull up the little girl in the pink dress buried in the mud and her mother’s corpse sitting under a tree, mouth filled with sand. And Scott’s last holy plea to us is not to forget and start over, but remember the names of the loved, with all the mud and sweetness and misery and they drag along behind them.
Get Crapalachia here.

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  1. Crapalachia by Scott McClanahan | Vouched Books - April 29, 2013

    […] really just can’t get our fill of Scott McClanahan. You recall Layne’s review here at Vouched. I’ve got my own spin on the book up at Sundog […]

  2. Indie Lit Classics: Every Good Thing We Have Ever Said About Scott McClanahan | Vouched Books - November 7, 2013

    […] joint review with Sundog Lit of Crapalachia and Layne’s take on it, […]

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