a literary review
I admit it. The title drew me to Crapalachia. With a scatological name like that, it has to be hilarious, right? And irreverent—it’s got to be off-the-charts irreverent, right? Yes and no. The book has comedy, but its an Ancient Greek comedy performed by a poet thoroughly schooled in dramatic conflict. As for irreverence, the author reserves his for facts. Scott McClanahan professes to be more interested in respecting the truth.
If you were grasping to define Crapalachia, you might start with its epigraph by Robert Penn Warren: “Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake.” At its core, Crapalachia is a coming of age story about a boy growing up in rural West Virginia under the aegis of his Grandma Ruby and Uncle Nathan, who suffers from cerebral palsy, cannot speak, and still lives with his mother. McClanahan portrays these two characters in both poetic and mythic tones.
In one episode, Uncle Nathan convinces young Scott to pour beer into his uncle’s feeding tube. Afterwards, Nathan wants to listen to radio preacher hour.
Nathan shook his finger and told the preacher: Tell them. That’s right, tell them sons of bitches.
Then he moved his little finger above his head which meant, the good lord’s coming to get us soon.
Another episode has Ruby warning a cat she doesn’t like to stay away from the hogs and quit stealing their slop: “‘You better watch it,’ Ruby warned him one last time.” But of course, the cat doesn’t listen and he gets his head bitten off, after which Ruby continues to feed the hogs and pigs: “And then we went and sat on the front porch and watched the hummingbirds hum around. It felt peaceful.” Translation: Listen to what Ruby tells you. She knows. Nothing lasts.
At one point, the author rants about how Ruby knew how to do all kinds of things no one else knew how to do, like render lard, make soap, cook biscuits from scratch, slaughter a hog.
And she knew how to do things that are all forgotten now—things that people from Ohio buy because it says homemade on the tag. I looked at the quilt she was working on. The quilt wasn’t a fucking symbol of anything. It was something she made to keep her children warm. Remember that. Fuck symbols.
The second part of the book, denoted by a chapter called “The Second Part,” focuses on McClanahan’s high school days. Here, he stitches together episodes from when he was living with a friend in the friend’s mother’s apartment. It maintains the pace and tone of the first part, but its characters don’t have the same impact or appeal as McClanahan’s kin.
Nevertheless, this second part stays in line with McClanahan’s overarching theme. “It goes like this: Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. It’s the sound you’re hearing now, and it’s one of the saddest sounds in the world.” Crapalachia’s subtitle, A Biography of Place, is somewhat of a misnomer. This book—this memoir slash elegy slash revival testimony— is less about place than about the passage of time spinning around you like a carousel ride gone horribly wrong. It’s about struggling and surviving and thriving and begetting. It’s about trying to go home again. It’s about blessing the forgotten by telling their stories, confirming their existence, unforgetting them. It’s about striving “to pass the torch of life for one another like runners in the night.”
While I might have approached Crapalachia looking for funny and irreverent, I came away with a deep affection for its characters as well as a curious respect for the author’s charismatic voice. And I still love the title, because it is funny and irreverent, and it’s more than a little bit the truth, and because, as Scott McClanahan says, “Shit makes the flowers grow.”