Scott McClanahan is an author gifted with stating intuition implicitly. A part of our work as writers is to make sense, to distill, to state it both beautifully and with clarity, and yet in McClanahan’s most recent collection Stories II (Six Gallery Press, 155 pages), not for a moment, does the writing feel put on, on purpose, pushed. However, in these 155 pages, we find ourselves bathed in truth, relating universally, unequivocally taken to these very specific and personal stories, stories written in a very distinct Southern/Appalacia dialect, at that.
In “The Last Time I Stole Walt Whitman’s Sole,” we are met with a young man who has gone to visit his girlfriend’s family. His improbable mother-in-law identifies herself as a practicing Witch, and his improbable father-in-law is a complete head-case, causing a public storm in a restaurant, but the poetics and humor are where McClanahan “shows up.” He discovers that in his girlfriend’s hometown is a mall named after Walt Whitman, which the townspeople seem not to understand is named after a writer, nor know of the writer. Scott decides he is going to shoplift a book of Whitman from the Whitman Mall. Upon arrival, he learns the bookstore doesn’t carry any Whitman.
In what I would call an anthem to hard-working women, McClanahan tells a story about his mother’s 33-year-long teaching career, and the fact that her favorite student, whose entire career she has followed via newspaper articles, doesn’t even recognize her upon introduction at a funeral.
As a teacher in a prison, McClanahan himself is the subject of false hope.
The work within the stories is apparent. Often toward the end of the tales, we are met with a veritable Joycean coda, in which the author pulls the reader literally up out of the work to view the characters and essentially ourselves from another perspective. A powerful tool often mispronounced, and exquisitely drafted here. The work is in essence exquisite because it is so unpretentiously placed, so clearly stated, yet the subject matter so broad and simultaneously finite. This is a writer who refers to himself repeatedly throughout the work by his actual name, who shares with us vaudevillian jokes from his wife, who opens us to his familial history and who never, ever loses site of the vulnerable humility we as writers trying to make our way through the world carry with us.
–Nicolle Elizabeth, author of Read This Sh*t Out Loud (forthcoming).
Excerpt: from “Kidney Stones”
“I just wanted to be changed. I mean I wanted to be changed more than anything in this world. See that morning I was down at the Rite Aid with my Uncle Terry copying some of my Grandma’s old pictures when I felt this pain in my back. Of course, I didn’t pay it any mind though and just kept copying the picture of this old black and white shot of my Grandfather from the late 30s.
It was one where he got in a fight with a police officer and they put him in jail.
It was a mugshot picture.
And then there was another picture of him somebody took a couple years later, after he got religion.
He was sitting on the hood of a car, holding a bible in his lap.
And I just stood and stared at the pictures and the pictures stared back. I thought about my Grandfather who was a moonshiner once and then gave it all up to follow the lord. I though about Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus and being struck by a blinding light. And then he heard a voice and changed his name to Paul. That’s how easy it was-you just had to change your name to Paul.
So my Uncle Terry put the picture of my Grandfather Elgie holding the bible ont the picture scanner and said, “Yeah, he got religion alright and completely changed.”
So I giggled again because it was so stupid-the way it all sounded.
It all sounded so ridiculous really, how all of these vision were always about good and evil, God and the Devil.
So we copied the bible picture down and I started feeling this pain even more. I just leaned over the counter hoping it would go away.
Go away. Go away.
But it didn’t.
My Uncle asked me in his strange hillbilly/New York/New Jersey/San Francisco accent, “You alright boy?”
So I smiled and said, “No I’m fine. I’m fine.”
And at first it came in waves, but then…I was just in PAIN.
“You need to go to the doctor boy?” he said again.
But I just shook my head no.
And so we finished up the pictures and I tried pretending I was fine.
And besides that I had to go to work that evening. I mean I’d just found a job a coupe of weeks before and I couldn’t lose it now…When I went inside work I didn’t tell anybody about the pain from the kidney stones on the way there. I didn’t tell them about what had gone down.
And they didn’t tell me about their pain either.
They didn’t tell me about how their Dad’s drank.
And the women in the corner didn’t tell me about how her husband cheated on her and she thought about killing herself.
The man in the front didn’t tell me his Mother died when he was 11 years old, and everyday when he came home, he watched her die. He watched her die everyday beside the television cartoons.
And the other girl in the back didn’t tell about how she was raped one night by this older guy when she was thirteen.
I didn’t tell them about my pain either.
I didn’t tell them about how Saul saw a blinding light on the road to Damascus and changed his name to Paul.
I didn’t tell them about how everything changes in this world.
But how could I?
How could I tell them about what happened to me in the bathroom on the way here?
How could I tell them about the blinding light, and how I passed a kidney stone shaped like a crucifix?
How could I tell them about hearing a loud voice, shouting from on high…”