“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.” Kentuckian Chris Offutt chose that line from Joan Didion’s The White Album as the epigraph for his memoir, No Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home. Appalachian literature plays an elegaic refrain. It is a literature of dislocation and transition and survival. Ron Rash, echoing Offutt, reflects how everybody who lived on the two-mile dirt road that led to his grandmother’s farm was either family or friend. Now, “I probably know three families out of 60 or 70. And that place is gone. The accent’s gone. A lot of the culture is disappearing.”
Rash and Offutt hesitate to sentimentalize that passing world, but the pull is inescapable. As Rash says, “there’s something in us as human beings that–we know our lives are transitory, but we want something not to be transitory, something to endure, whether it’s a landscape or a place.” Rash’s poem “Preserves” is a concise dramatization of that process. After a funeral, the dead’s land and property are divided among kin, but the narrator has forgotten a springhouse. He opens the rotting door and he finds “woodslats bowed with berry and vegetable.” The double meaning of the poem’s title is less meant to be clever than funereal, as the family “heaped our paper plates and ate, one chair / closest to the stove unfilled.”
Later this year, Rash’s novel Serena gets the full Hollywood treatment. Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper will likely send more readers back to his work, including his newest release, Above the Waterfall. For many readers, the life and fiction of Breece D’J Pancake still haunts the discussion of Appalachian literature. Pancake killed himself in 1979 at 27-years-old, and his rough but lyric tales have made him a martyr. Jon Michaud’s recent retrospective at The New Yorker is a fitting tribute. He recommends Thomas E. Douglass’s biography, A Room Forever, and Samantha Hunt’s essay “The Secret Handshake,” which appeared in The Believer. I would add Marion Field’s touching “Complicated Manners” from the Oxford American. But start with the man’s fiction; my favorites are “The Way It Has To Be” and “Time and Again.”
It would be foolish to deny Pancake’s literary influence on how we speak about literary Appalachia. The parallel nature of his passionate but short life, his brief output (he only published enough stories to fill one book), and the crafted compression of his tales make him almost too perfect of a symbol. During a review of Rusty Barnes’s story collection, Mostly Redneck, I positively compared Barnes to Pancake, noting that both writers used finely crafted settings to add gravity to the minutia of their characters’ lives. In an interview, Barnes pushed back against my comparison, citing a frustration with reviewers using Pancake as metonym for Appalachian literature. While that certainly wasn’t my intention, I welcome his excellent list of other noteworthy contemporaries from the region: Nikki Finney, Frank X. Walker, Lee Smith, Lisa Koger, Maurice Manning, Silas House, James Still, Crystal Wilkinson, Charles Dodd White, Gurney Norman, Denise Giardina, Mark Powell, Pinckney Benedict, and Chris Offutt. Readers should get Red Holler: Contemporary Appalachian Literature, edited by John Branscum and Wayne Thomas, or issues of Appalachian Heritage, Still, and Appalachian Journal to see the newest work coming from Appalachia. Countless others could be added to Barnes’s list, including Harry Humes, Jayne Anne Phillips, Tom Bailey, the late Irene McKinney, Ann Pancake, RT Smith, Fred Chappell, Joseph Bathanti, and Scott McClanahan, whose memoir, Crapalachia, is a self-admitted yarn. “God bless those who keep trying to make myths,” he writes.
One of the finest mythmakers in contemporary Appalachian letters is Rose McLarney, a poet from western North Carolina. Although she now teaches in Oklahoma, while looking for her first teaching job back east, McLarney “was living without electricity, hiking 17 miles to use the phone or internet.” Her first book, The Always Broken Plates of Mountains, hits elegaic notes, as in poems like “Autumn Again,” where the sumac-stabbed hills create a beautiful color, but “this time of year, there is always / a wounded feeling.” Her first book was not provincial, but her newest release, Its Day Being Gone, widens her range.
The book begins with violence. In “Facing North,” the narrator needs to put down a sick goat. “Silent animals” on the farm watch in judgment. She is not without guilt, wondering if she “should have given her southerly pasture,” and then cleverly turning the hesitance on herself, thinking “I should have gone in another direction.” Her threnody might seem archaic. After all, “In this era, when there is no need / to farm, who is drawn to have livestock, / which die so much?” Yet again, the narrator has used “animals / as the figures for my sorrows.” But she is “still here. / I can’t stay away / from the hard images.”
Those hard images, like the tenuous truths of McClanahan’s memoir, are no less painful if they are myths. Later in the collection, McLarney writes “much of what you grew up with had already faded– / there was less paint than rust on the metal, and littler / hope.” This tension between past and present, reality and hope moves the book forward. In “Shadow Cat,” the narrator walks a dirt road, thinking how the “houses on bits of flat / kept their backs to the walls / of mountains, knowing / their place.” The natural world reigns, and is untouched until higher up the mountain, where a man pulling a bulldozer whispered a warning: “Careful out here alone. / Big cat will get you.” She’s been hearing such admonitions her entire life, although few people have actually seen such animals. She wonders if the warnings are a comfort, “keeping alive the belief / that what wildness abides / out there is the danger.”
Dangerous, but it is their wildness, and the narrator of “Watershed” defends the local, “murky” waterways. She is not interested in clear water “filtered by mosses and lichens.” She wants an “ancient, worn landscape,” where she can swim over sunken cars. A certain level of toughness is expected. Someone who enters her house must be “unafraid / of stumbling on sagging floors, into low doorframes, features / of old structures, the past, people I know.”
Great books can be local, but Its Day Being Gone gains another dimension through the inclusion of McLarney’s chapbook, Hone Creek, originally published in Mudlark. The poems in this sequence dramatize the upheaval of South American communities from hydroelectric damming. “Imminent Domain” introduces the section. Although McLarney does not identify herself as an activist–“as much as [my poems] say what is wrong, [they] end up admitting my complicity”–these poems are written with anger. Although some of these engineers “meant well,” “Power always is sent to serve regions other / than where it is made.”
The disparate regions are also connected by methods of storytelling. McLarney’s narrators often smirk, as good yarn spinners do. “Setting,” a story about a thief and his lover, is told “because I want your attention. For you to come for dinner again.” These “bellyful tales,” told “when no one is hungry,” are variations on a theme:
No, there’s nothing new in it. But it couldn’t be richer.
What would you rather have than a thing you know
spiced and simmered, spoken and seconded,
in another’s accent?
Its Day Being Gone is several books in one, and “Story with a Real Beast and a Little Blood in It” helps decode the synthesis. A bull breaks loose, and after the men, “butted and bruised / with rope-burned hands, give up,” the narrator makes a path of sweet feed that leads into a gated fence. But she pauses the poem to warn that we should “not look to make any allegories, / for any meaning beyond the marvel.” In Its Day Being Gone, McLarney has it both ways. Her stories are real, but they are symbols. Appalachia will remain, but it helps that the region has such skilled writers to document its truths and myths. McLarney’s poems contain enough eloquence to make a passing world permanent. Her work reminds us that when the bull ran, when the past began to fade, you “followed / on your knees down the mountain, noting / even in brambles, as you bled, the stars.”
Is there an indie press that consistently punches up as high and as successfully as Two Dollar Radio? They’re the ones who unleashed The Orange Eats Creeps onto our shelves three years ago, and they followed it up shortly thereafter with the breakout work of Scott McClanahan. Now? Now they’re poised for a threepeat with Shane Jones’s Crystal Eaters, which has already earned its author interviews on Hobart and The Paris Review. (Bonus: TDR’s publisher on moving his outfit to Ohio.)
Is writing an inherently performative medium? Scott McClanahan thinks so. “I think my favorite writers are hams,” he said in an interview for The Rumpus. He also discussed staying at hotels with pimps during his book tour, indie presses, his book Crapalachia (which our own Nick Moran recommends), and his aversion to tote bags.
The joke is that you know you’re in Real America™ when the IHOPs turn into Waffle Houses. The truth is that you know you’re in Real America™ when everybody’s so dadgum nice that they leave their doors unlocked. Real America™ is where food is fried and guns can be bought on layaway. It’s where opening a bar tab means setting $20 on the counter and drinking ‘til it’s gone.
I’ve been to Real America™; my family lives there.
Growing up, we’d visit them in Perry County — and make no mistake: the county is more important than the state in Real America™ — to drive ATVs around an ancient farm house next to a lake, or a river, or some big body of water rife with bullfrogs. You learn early in Real America™ that the best way to catch one of those suckers is to shine a flashlight in its eyes, paralyzing it, while your youngest cousin snatches its slimy toadskin from behind.
The thing you have to remember about Real America™ is that it’s different from the rest of America. The other thing you have to remember is that for all its charms, Real America™ has secrets, too.
Those houses with their doors unlocked? Their owners keep shotguns to be safe. That farmhouse you’ve visited since you were a kid? Its previous owner hanged himself in the garage. The bullfrog you caught with your cousins? You put it into Tupperware last night, and you knew you were supposed to poke holes in the top for air, but you didn’t because something inside you wanted to see it die.
The food is fried because it’s cooked with love, and love is a synonym for lard, and lard will kill you.
Real America™ is where you get your first kiss, but also your first black eye. It’s where your uncle sets off fireworks each year on the Fourth of July until your family stops inviting him because of something the aunts won’t talk about.
This in mind, I nominate Scott McClanahan as the Poet Laureate of Real America™. He knows all this and more about Real America™ because he was raised in the crucible of a West Virginian holler. For him, Real America™ is less about folk songs, pick-up trucks, and girls in sundresses than it is about pulmonary trauma, Medicaid fraud, and Duke’s mayonnaise. This is not to say that his version of the place is without its chivalry, though: McClanahan’s version of communal giving is a group of trapped coal miners all pledging to conserve oxygen for the youngest laborer, each vowing to die because that guy stands a chance.
As such, McClanahan is the author of two of the most affecting books I’ve read all year: Crapalachia and Hill William. A mostly-true memoir on the one hand, and a mostly-nonfictional novel on the other, these two works have stuck to my sides for months. I’ve dreamed about them. I’ve chewed on them like the cartilage knuckle on a fried chicken wing.
Both works inhabit a universe based on the rural towns and mountains where McClanahan grew up. Some facts have been changed, but the gist remains faithful. (When you’re talking about Real America™, after all, emotions are truths and facts are distractions.) Together, the books complement one another in such a way that they present the most unified, singular, and altogether honest account of life in these parts of the country as you’ll ever find. Less concerned with sentimentalizing than with truth-telling, McClanahan peels back the hardened scabs on Appalachian life to reveal the supple, sensitive wounds beneath.
In McClanahan’s own words: “I never look at a painting and ask, ‘Is this painting fictional or non-fictional?’ It’s just a painting.”
Now, to be honest with myself is to admit that there is no way I can convey the effect of these books without giving too much away — a practice I hate in book reviews — and so in lieu of summary or sustained criticism, I’d like to instead present a brief road map for you to interpret on your own, as well as a few selected passages so the books can speak in their own words.
My first direction is that Crapalachia is the funnier of the two. While there’s ample death and mourning in its pages, it feels lighter than Hill William. It contains passages like this one:
“The next night was radio preacher night. That only meant one thing. My Uncle Nathan [who had cerebral palsy] was going to drink beer. He just kept groaning and pointing at the beer and then pointing at his feeding tube. What was the use of drinking beer when you could immediately pour a six-pack in your stomach tube and have it shoot into your bloodstream that much quicker? I poured the beer in and then I poured another. I cracked another and another. Then I did the rest. He smiled and then burped. It smelled like a beer burp.”
My second piece of advice is that Hill William answers a question nobody has ever asked: what would happen if William Blake binge-watched Hoarders and then wrote Deliverance? How’s this for an Appalachian dream vision?
“So I walked to the top of the mountain and I looked up towards the clouds. The sky was streaked with purple and pink. I kept looking and then I saw something. I saw hundreds of dirty angels in the sky. They were flying angels but they had devil horns. They were all swooping down at me and screaming and swirling and telling me in their country voices what I had to do. They were telling me to go see [a] Batman [impersonator at the mall] and everything would be okay. I needed to go see Batman and my world would be healed and made wonderful.”
What I want you to understand about McClanahan’s writing is how, with such spare prose, he’ll fool you into subdued comfort just before gutting you. It’s honest. It’s funny, but it’ll wreck you. Consider these lines from Crapalachia:
“After dinner I took a nap and I dreamed a dream about the future and in this future I was dreaming a dream about the past. But in my dreams I’m always back at Ruby’s house, and back at Ruby’s table. It’s always Sunday again and we’re all just sitting around the table like we always did. Nathan’s on one side and I’m on the other and my grandma’s on the left. And just like always she’s fixed chicken and gravy and we’re all so hungry and passing the plates — the biscuits, the mayonnaise salad, the cucumbers in vinegar, and I think to myself, even now, that this will be what the final moments of oxygen escaping from my brain will be like. It’ll be like a Sunday so long ago with all of the dead stuffing themselves full of food cooked with lard, and gravy that will once again clog their arteries and kill their hearts. It will be the feast of death and it will taste so delicious.”
This writing is remarkable because it’s local but also universal. If you’ve ever been to Real America™, it’ll fill you with nostalgia, and also dread. If you haven’t been, these books will give you a tour. There’s a reason the best ghost stories take place in the woods. Real America™ is haunted, and Scott McClanahan can show you how.
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Recently I reported on the launch of Two Dollar Radio Moving Pictures, a cinematic venture from the indie publishers in Ohio. Since then, a pair of teaser trailers have been released for the first films in the organization’s pipeline. One is for The Greenbrier Ghost, which was co-written by Crapalachia author Scott McClanahan. The second is for The Removals, and it was directed by Orange Eats Creeps author Grace Krilanovich. (A few years back I gave TOEC some love in my Year In Reading post.)
Maybe you’ve been enjoying Crapalachia (Excerpt) as much as everybody else these days – or perhaps you’re just a big fan of the Appalachians (and hopefully not MTV’s Buckwild). Either way, you should get a kick out of Scott Hubener’s The Space In-between project. The photography series “documents the landscape and residents along U.S. Route 23, between Asheville, North Carolina, and Johnson City, Tennessee.”