The Sarah Book

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A Year in Reading: Nick Moran

In the mornings they set out paper bowls of cantaloupe at RT’s Flag Bar in Baltimore, which is an upgrade over the stale peanuts you’ll find elsewhere. Then again, there’s a handwritten sign above the register that says, “Remember BENGHAZI” so it’s not all pleasant. I know because this year I read a lot in bars, and RT’s is where I really began.

When you bring a book to a bar, you get entertainment and a shield. Healthier than a phone, reading a book dissuades would-be chatterboxes more effectively than pretending to check your email. Some will persist, and we usually wish they wouldn’t, but there’s no such thing as an impenetrable defense. RT’s was a refuge from the heat, so I locked my bike and read Heather Christle’s poems. I was so entranced I forgot about the cantaloupe. In the summer I felt snowed in.

At Lee’s Liquor Lounge in Minneapolis, the bartender told a patron that she wouldn’t have worn her overalls if she’d known she’d be working that day. That’s another thing about reading in bars: you can eavesdrop. At the Moose on Monroe, some dude named Frisco tried to tell me all about “boilermaking” while I read Sam Pink’s The Garbage Times / White Ibis. Minnesotans will talk even when you are aggressively uninterested in what they’re saying, sometimes to no one but themselves, but it’s easy enough to grunt or autopilot your way through a few “no kiddings” until they move on. Bars there hold weekly meat raffles. One of the novellas in Pink’s book takes place inside a frigid, dank dive. I thought about that when I noticed someone had written “DO NOT TOUCH ALL WINTER” above the Knight Cap’s thermostat.

Reading Harry Crews practically apparates whiskey into your hand no matter where you are, so it was ticklish to learn Joe Lon, his protagonist in Feast of Snakes, owned a package store full of brown liquor. In the back, a lady named Hard Candy placed bets on how quickly a snake could eat a rat, and while I read that scene I put my feet up on the rail at Butts & Betty’s in case something slithered by. One of the bartenders is a notary public, and she pours Beam like she’s giving it away.

At St. Roch Tavern north of Marigny, I took a break from reading Larry Brown’s Big Bad Love because he described being “drunk as a boiled owl,” and I needed a minute to process that visual. Moments later, bingo night started. While not as insufferable as karaoke, bingo makes considerable commotion so I moved across town to Snake & Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge. I read the rest of the book under the red glow of ten thousand string lights. Snake’s has changed in recent years, and it felt sanitized compared to how I remembered it. Fittingly, the last story in Brown’s collection might be the worst piece I’ve read since undergrad, and I slogged through it next to two loud Tulane students before I left.

Your second bourbon’s treachery is how it tells you you’re good for four, but in the Fairmont Dallas lobby bar, that’s manageable because the pours are piddly. Before checking into my room, I polished off Christina Thompson’s New Zealand memoir, which I enjoyed well enough however I wish it lived up to its title, even though nothing ever could: Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All.

Bars conducive to reading need good light. You want lantern vibes. A gentle din is better than music but, paradoxically, both are preferable to silence. The downside of a totally quiet bar is that when someone inevitably opens their mouth, or the phone rings, the noise is too crisp to ignore.

I like reading at Standings in the East Village because I lack the constitution to pay attention to baseball statistics and Vegas odds, and those two subjects dominate conversations in the place. Not long ago I finished The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake in the corner, and drew three circles around this line: “Insecurity crawfished through his blood, leaving him powerless again.”

The other night at ChurchKey, which was far too dark, I read Patricia Lockwood’s essay on Lucia Berlin, which was incandescently bright. Lockwood nailed the aspects of Berlin I love most. A Manual for Cleaning Women showed me how vividly someone can convey the careworn sense of a place, and while Evening in Paradise is less polished and consistent, its descriptions of places and sounds are no less wonderful. Few writers have had better ears for dialogue and acoustic details than Berlin, which is why I gasped when Lockwood wrote, “The problem is that if you’re a person who loves perfect sounds, bars are always full of them.” In one of her stories, Berlin’s protagonist asks what the difference is between a connoisseur and a wino. “The connoisseur takes it out of the paper bag.”

Dive bars are timeless. You cannot imagine them opening; they’ve just existed. Newer bars are usually harder, louder, less respectful to readers. You need to pick particular books depending on your venue. No one should read the canon at the Budweiser Brew House in the St. Louis airport. However it was a serviceable setting when I needed to finish The Strange Bird, and nothing could’ve broken my concentration. Boisterous beach bars can be navigated. I wouldn’t try to read Moby-Dick there, but Monty’s in Coconut Grove is the perfect setting for American Desperado, Jon Roberts’s mesmerizing memoir about his time as a narco kingpin. While sipping a Pain Killer, I learned the best way to kneecap someone. Under the wicker fans, I looked across Biscayne Bay and imagined picking up a loaf of bread in Bimini. I don’t think anyone’s ever read anything at Sweet’s Lounge on the Gulf coast of Mississippi, but you could play “chicken shit bingo” there for a couple bucks and write a story about it afterwards. I’d read that.

Walking home from Frazier’s, I peeked in row house windows and imagined myself hanging out with Willie and Liberty from Breaking & Entering. When Joy Williams wrote her guide to The Florida Keys, was she just casing joints like they did?  Has anyone ever nailed Florida’s dreadful sublimity better than Williams? I think not. She began a chapter with the phrase, “the summer that someone was mutilating the pelicans,” and I’m still reeling.

Carol at BAR used to give a key to her regulars so they could let themselves in, but “nowadays you can’t even leave a cooler around some people.” This notion was enough to make me put down Lindsay Hunter’s Eat Only When You’re Hungry, the most perfect book I read all year. Imagine the trust in that bygone era. Meet oblivion like Greg.

They sold Tums and Rolaids for $1.50 at Dimitri’s before it closed and turned into a taco joint. It’s hard to explain but the vibe at the time was just right for Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book, which was profoundly sad and beautiful. Joyce, the bartender who makes great pit beef, had a preternatural gift for anticipating when her patrons needed another round. Broken Arrow played on the TV while one guy discussed a 4-month program training HVAC technicians, and how the irony of working on air conditioners is that you never get to feel them yourself. His companion with a cane was talking about moving to Colorado to escape the heat. It reminded me of the line in Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son: “what I wouldn’t give to have us sitting in a bar again at 9:00 a.m. telling lies to one another, far from God.”

Drinking while reading lubricates the mind, makes it more amenable to certain ideas. Thoughts become cloudy, not just in terms of ephemerality but also in how gracefully they brush into one another. There’s a thrum in the cerebellum when thoughts gather momentum, when the clouds pick up wind. Another benefit of reading in the bar is that by committing to the book in a public space, you become motivated to see it through. Even though nobody cares, you feel like the people around you want you to finish the book. You push forward in a way that you probably wouldn’t alone at home, surrounded by comfortable distractions. I find this useful when I want to finish a book just to finish it, after I’ve ceased enjoying the experience. Recently I pretended a couple on a Tinder date a few seats over was invested in whether or not I could get to the end of Andrey Platonov’s Happy Moscow. It turned out they were as disinterested in one another as I was in the book, but that’s one last thing about reading in bars: when you’re done, you can get the hell out of there.

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

A Year in Reading: Anne K. Yoder

2017, I resented you and your Twitter feeds, the obscenity of your news stream. The skyrocketing of petulance and greed. The normalization of hate. It was a year of half-read books: too difficult to concentrate. But books, they were also, for me, bright stars against the dark night of our political nadir. Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book tore a hole in my soul. A semi-autobiographical novel about the break-up of a marriage: think Scenes from a Marriage, think Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? set with West Virginia as its backdrop. The sad, clever, and at times woefully misguided Scott chronicles the fallout of his marriage to Sarah, ICU nurse and self-appointed caretaker of helpless things. It’s a sad beautiful song of bleakness and alienation lined with sunbursts of tenderness and redemption.

I loved Jess Arndt’s slender gem of a story collection, Large Animals, for its ways of seeing. Arndt’s uncanny observations give life to desire, to despair, to the smallest things. In her stories, the mundane is drawn anew—waves appear “like sandwich foil that had been crumpled up and hucked away,” a refrigerator’s shelves, like a rib cage. The embodied sensuality lies in stark contrast to the narrators’ struggles with the physical encumbrance of inhabiting a body with breasts, and fantasies and fears associated with having them surgically removed.

I’ve spent months teasing out relationships of teenage girls in my fiction, and sought out other fictions that depict the young girl with complexity: their surly, backbiting, tender, loyal, and vulnerable ways, the ferocity of their attachments. Megan Abbott’s Dare Me did this brilliantly well; I am loath to admit I so enjoyed a book about a team of high school cheerleaders, but, oh, I did. The girls are drawn with such intelligence and wit.

Edith-May, loner and protagonist of Coco Picard’s graphic novel Chronicles of Fortune would hate cheerleaders, I imagine, as much she hates bachelorette parties, and for this (and many other reasons) I adore her. “If I have to eat a penis lollipop I’ll die,” Edith-May tells her roommates (who consist of a mountain that’s grown in her city apartment and a crocodile she took in from the roof). Edith May’s superhero alter ego comes to life after the death of her mother, though she only appears at night and suffers from ennui. Together they encounter ghosts and healers and moth populations and find ways to grieve. Kate Zambreno’s powerful, lyric processing of her mother’s death in Book of Mutter is an artful encomium and stunning homage of a book that at its center conjures Samuel Beckett: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”  I’m in awe of Vivian Gornick as a thinker and reader and of her powers of observation with regard to the city (New York) and of her love/hate relationship with her mother in Fierce Attachments. I’m still not over Patty Yumi Cottrell’s beautiful and devastating Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, whose narrator returns home after her brother’s suicide in an  attempt to piece together his reasons and instead finds her parents inhospitable and in denial. And last in this line of loss is the first Elena Ferrante I’ve read—Days of Abandonment—consumed in what now seems like a prolonged summer haze.

Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People is a brilliant book of interlinked stories that revel in wordplay, and that depict the lives of temporary workers in the UAE and their families and their interchangeable identities in the eyes of the state. In contrast, these characters are so vivid on the page—a woman tapes together workers who have fallen from tops of buildings; a son throws his grandfather’s ashes into a river; a suitcase sprouts legs, a man devours, and in devouring, becomes a plane. Dispensability is key, too, in Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone, which tracks a group of refugees housed in Berlin through the vantage point of their tutor, a recently retired college professor. We see Richard’s privileged life and its relative continuity (despite the fall of the Berlin Wall), his companionship of friends who are like family and have grown old with him, and the stark contrast this poses to the lives of the refugees he befriends and attempts to help. They’re survivors of genocide and oppression who escaped via harrowing journeys. They are  subject to bureaucracy without rights, subject to prejudice against their skin color and origins, shuffled at the whims of the state, condemned for the burden they pose while not being allowed to work or to settle there. The disregard for the men’s lives is staggering—as is their suffering, the ways state’s intercession only perpetuates the shuffle and undercuts their humanity. Go, Went Gone, is an important book. It’s impossible to read and not take a long, hard look at how we’re all implicated.

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A Year in Reading: Nick Moran

Something more than serendipity was afoot when I entered my neighborhood’s pie-eating contest this year. It was a warm, sunny morning so I hoofed it a few blocks from my house to the bakery, signed up for the day’s contest, and returned home to kill four hours before it began. I was sitting on my porch, having just cracked open Thomas McGuane’s Ninety-two in the Shade, which I’d plucked at random from my bookshelf of Florida writing. (You may have read about my “thing” with the Sunshine State…) Not long after, I got to a scene in which, you guessed it, contestants eat a bunch of pies, hoping to win a fishing trip:

Before he was really prepared for the event, it was upon him. Abruptly, uniformed men from the truck were trooping to the tables, tall piles of stacked pies in their hands. By the time the pies were emplaced, with the flavor choices of the contestants honored, the judges had raised their pistols.
Then the guns were fired and all twenty lashed into the pies; a moment later and the slowest contestants had eaten five; and in another moment, the first vomiter rose, the gelatinous, undigested cherries of her ‘flavor option’ dribbling down her chest.
And very quickly it was over. Losers were roughly hustled away from the table and the redhead was left alone. He looked around himself in happy disbelief for the brief remaining moment before he was declared the winner. Then all hesitation vanishing, he rose powerfully, baying his triumph in an impressive hurricane of crumbs, the insect jaws agape.
When Nichol Dance gave him his certificate, he said, ‘Boy, fishing is all I’m about! I’m the mother dog of all fishermen and I want to go out with you real bad–‘ With the word ‘bad’ he began to vomit all over himself.
And Dance went off in a panic, saying, “Well, I’ll look to hear from you down to the dock. I hope you’re feeling better!”

I took it as a sign. This contest was mine to win. A year earlier, I’d taken third. The man who won was wearing a full arm cast—the type in which your arm is bent at a 90 degree angle, and a stick holds it out from your waist—so he quite literally beat all of us with one hand tied behind his back. I couldn’t suffer the same indignity twice.
Reader, I suffered the same indignity twice. In fact, I did even worse, placing fourth after the same two gluttons who beat me last time, and after the guy who took first, who apparently had won in 2015, took 2016 off, and chose 2017 as the year he’d reclaim his title.

The experience shaded my entire year in reading, however. From that moment on, whenever I read anything, I couldn’t shake the feeling that what I read would foretell or signal some immediate development in my actual life. This quickly became more than a little scary. I read Mathias Svalina’s The Wine-Dark Sea and worried, am I growing depressed? I read Stephen King’s It and avoided sewer grates as a precaution. (I am not taking a bath any time soon.) I unplugged so many electronics after I read (and reviewed!) Alissa Nutting’s Made for Love. Why risk it? Did that lamp just move? I wondered after reading Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne. While traveling to a friend’s wedding in Montana, I read Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, which is a riveting narrative of Meriwether Lewis’s westward exploration. Somewhere in Wyoming, I read the chapter about the men wintering in South Dakota which opens with this line, and I grew terrified until I realized it was summer, and things were warm:

It was always cold, often brutally cold, sometimes so cold a man’s penis would freeze if he wasn’t quick about it.


It didn’t matter that after the pie-eating contest, there had been no instances in which my reading leapt off the page into my corporeal reality. The feeling endured regardless. Then again, in addition to the times when the effect was frightening, there were also moments in which it was aspirational. Maybe I wanted it to happen again. The whole time I read Fire in the Hole, I was waiting for a whiskey glass to appear in my hand. Ditto for Hard Rain Falling. I expected chicken wings to manifest when I read Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book.

Alas, none of that came to be. Over time, the feeling’s faded. Recently I read (and reviewed!) Hotel Scarface and I didn’t worry about the FBI wiretapping me once.
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The King of Shopping Mall Surrealism

Back in the mid-1980s, while young Scott McClanahan was busy running up and down the mountainside in Rainelle, W.Va., picking blackberries and carving his name into turtles, critics in New York were becoming increasingly preoccupied with defining, and ridiculing, a “new” form of short fiction. Labeled as Shopping Mall Realism, Kmart Realism, Dirty Realism, Name Brand Realism, Diet Coke Realism or “Truth Among the Trailer Parks,” the short stories of Bobbie Ann Mason, Ann Beattie, Frederick Barthelme, Larry Brown, and others were derided as being terse, unadorned, and shallow. In a 1986 essay in Harper’s, Madison Smartt Bell described the writing as having an “obsessive concern for surface detail, a tendency to ignore or eliminate distinctions among the people it renders, and a studiedly deterministic, at times nihilistic, vision of the world.” Three years later Tom Wolfe chimed in by claiming that the Kmart Realists had a penchant for “real situations, but very tiny ones” and “disingenuously short, simple sentences—with the emotions anesthetized, given a shot of Novocain.”

Most critics agree that the idea of Kmart Realism as movement or cohesive style came about after the publication of Bobbie Ann Mason’s Shiloh and Other Stories (1982) but the style predated her. Ernest Hemingway’s spare, muscular prose might be seen as the Grandaddy of Kmart Realism and Raymond Carver is almost undisputedly the Daddy, and though the term is no longer used very often, the family tree has continued on through writers like Denis Johnson, Lorrie Moore, Aimee Bender, Tao Lin, Mary Miller, and Scott McClanahan. But while Mason and others chafed under Wolfe and Smartt Bell’s descriptions, there has been a new trend in this lineage, through the ‘90s and ‘00s, towards a deeper embrace of the “obsessive concern for surface detail” and Novocained nihilism—an embrace that tips towards the surreal, with Johnson’s hallucinatory drug escapades, Bender’s flammable skirts, and most recently Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book, which just may be the king of Shopping Mall Surrealism.

In a 1985 interview, Bobbie Ann Mason admitted that the characters in her stories are heavily affected by pop culture but, she clarified, this “is not to be confused with a celebration of consumerism.” Scott McClanahan on the other hand is in full tilt celebration of Mountain Dew, Applebees, and Walmart; in his hands these familiar references are warped in beautiful ways, creating a transcendent meditation on modern materialism. Midway through this novel the narrator (also named Scott McClanahan) actually begins living at Walmart, or at least in the parking lot. “I highly recommend the Walmart parking lot for living in your car after a divorce,” he muses, “The cops don’t seem to bother you if you park close to the entrance.”

Kmart may have been the backdrop of Shopping Mall Realism, but Walmart, in McClanahan’s fiction, becomes a sacred entity unto itself. From his vantage point in the parking lot, McClanahan’s narrator
watched the people go inside. I watched them fill up their buggies and forget about all their pain […] I got out of my car and walked towards Walmart. It glowed in front of me like a temple. […] I went inside and saw the aisles rise like castles before me. And there was beef jerky, and almonds and chicken wings, pizza bites and cheese, all kinds of cheese, steak, porkchops, crackers and cereal. There was Fruity Pebbles and potato skins and soda. Mountain Lightning soda. And there was Red Bull, diet Red Bull, beer, light beer, dark beer, pistachios, juice boxes for kids […] I could see outside in the parking lot and the people were coming for a coronation of some sort. And so I walked among them because these were my people and this was my kingdom. They would all be bowing soon. This was the new country we had made from the skeleton of the old one. And I was their king of beef jerky. I was their emperor of soda.
McClanahan is not afraid to hold the royal and holy up alongside the mundane and banal. He cups them all together—the high and the low, simple and complex, fiction and nonfiction, present and past—and the result is a book that is as tender as it is fierce. The plot in this “semi-autobiographical portrait about falling in love, the breakdown of a marriage, and life in West Virginia,” is deceptively simple. It is intensely personal and yet also familiar. But it is not just that the sequence of falling in and out of love is relatable; there is something more than that, a genius in the level of specificity, so tight that it expands out until it contains everything. As one character puts it, “this giant meteor collided with earth and so life began. […] We are all made up of what came here and collided […] but also if you wanted to buy the things that make up our bodies it would cost about as much as a candy bar. And that’s all we are. Candy bars and stars.”

To McClanahan there is no contradiction between the astral and the pedestrian, and throughout The Sarah Book a great electric energy is created by this simultaneous coexistence, the huge emotions that his character feels versus the simple clipped sentences in which they are expressed.

In a recent piece for The New York Review of Books, Joyce Carol Oates wrote of “the requirement of the minimalist imagination that nothing profound should happen in a work of fiction.” And while McClanahan is clearly a descendant of the minimalist tradition, he does not shy away from profundity, but rather allows it to spring forth from the everyday. A lunch break at the mall results in true love and reunification, or as the narrator puts it: “this is a boring story about how I went to the mall one day and ordered a cheeseburger and my life changed because I ordered a cheeseburger. I didn’t know it then but the story of our lives is the story of ordering cheeseburgers.” Life-changing love and cheeseburgers, candy bars and stars, life is not one of these but both, McClanahan argues.

While he takes on the Hallmark of Shopping Mall Realism—pop culture and consumer goods— McClanahan  is equally as successful at incorporating that other aspect which Smartt Bell described as a “tendency to ignore or eliminate distinctions among […] people.” In a conversation they have while falling in love, Sarah tells Scott that she believes that “we are only a collection of other people’s ideas about us. We are all a we.” Later, when Sarah asks Scott for a divorce, Scott finds solace in this”‘we.” After moving his belongings out of Sarah’s house, he drives to an Applebees where he is greeted by a hostess who is wearing “the same uniform that someone else was wearing somewhere else […] and make-up that someone else was wearing somewhere too. A woman named Michelle handed me a menu and she had a name like the name of a million different Michelles but she was her own Michelle.” Instead of the modern cliche of disconnection or separateness that we so often associate with box stores and chain restaurants, McClanahan uses these settings to amplify a sense of togetherness, a sort of winking “we’re all in this together.” This twist on the numbing universality of brands is uniquely refreshing, this idea that even in our aloneness (or our identicalness) we are not alone.

In the same way that he asks us to re-evaluate our preconceptions about corporate restaurants and stores, McClanahan also pushes his readers to re-inspect our ideas of what is sacred. A Bible is burned, the superiority of the Garden of Eden is brought into question—even the hierarchy of family over pornography is made unstable. The paternal concern that character-Scott is not quite able to muster for his children is perfectly offset by the caring and understanding way in which writer-Scott depicts his own failings. Though this novel chronicles the breakdown of a marriage, it is not an exercise in self-flagellation but rather a revolutionary re-envisioning of what love and family mean. This is perhaps best demonstrated through McClanahan’s treatment of time. In The Sarah Book the falling in and out of love happen simultaneously. A chapter in which Scott and Sarah sign divorce papers is snuggled up beside a chapter in which they get married, and a chapter in which Sarah announces that she is pregnant with their first child comes directly before a scene in which Scott, years later, sells his wedding ring for cash to spend at a strip club. This splicing of the end of the relationship in with its beginning is an exquisite technique that allows the reader to feel the fullness of the lives depicted here. This malleability of time is reminiscent of works like Patrick Modiano’s In the Cafe of Lost Youth in that it contains a beautiful sense that pockets of the past keep on occurring even in the midst of the present.

While McClanahan’s earlier books have, understandably, been described as “gritty” or “folksy” or “like you’re sitting in a buddy’s garage sucking down a couple of beers and he’s telling you” a story, comparing McClanahan only to Breece Pancake and Larry Brown does not do him justice. The Sarah Book especially, is larger than that. It is not regional fiction, but human fiction, and it is best read not as a zoological window into exotic Appalachia, but as a window into yourself. The very ubiquity of the shopping mall settings is what facilitates and enhances this perspective.

By the end of The Sarah Book McClanahan brings together all of these dichotomous elements—”I,” “you,” and “we;” memory and reality; the stars and the candy bars—into a quietly thunderous and immensely satisfying scene. While reading the final pages I couldn’t help but picture McClanahan as a conductor, orchestrating from on top of Sandstone Mountain with his piles of beef jerky, pistachios, DVDs, and potato chips, pulling it all together into a subtle emotional crescendo, hinging on the plastic lid to a fast-food restaurant cup.

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