June 3rd, 2009 / 4:59 pm
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STORIES by Scott McClanahan

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Often, when realistic fiction interests me – and it very often does- it must do what all art can do, and to quote the painter Lisa Yuskavage ( an idol of mine), prove that there is “not an uninteresting person alive.” Scott McClanahan’s collection, simply entitled STORIES (click here to buy) illuminates that concept. I realize this is in exact opposition to Christopher Higg’s  comment in his review of the Jello Horse by Matthew Simmons, where he wrote, “…but then again, so few real people are remarkably interesting.”  Now, we could quibble about remarkable versus not, but I’ll reiterate: I find it remarkable that I am alive, period, and the minutia of anyone’s life thrills me. (This is not to say  I don’t like some books better than others, or some people better than others, nor that there isn’t tons of crappy stuff passing off as literature. I’m just explaining a general worldview I adhere to.) And so the way I walk around this world is different than others, I understand that, because I walk around shocked, amused, moved to pity and rage and mostly baffled, in the most wonderful of ways, at how strange we all are (click here to read a thread that exemplifies our weirdness in regard to food.)

McClanahan’s stories are primarily set in West Virginia and all told in the first person by the same narrator, a narrator who views the seemingly narrow lives of his community and family with reverence. These are not condescending stories. They can be funny, but never treat the eccentric, or impoverished characters as cartoonish or garish; indeed, they celebrate, with honor, the strangeness and beauty of them all.

 

In “The Prettiest Girl In Texas” the narrator is visiting his grandparents in Texas and his uncle, who isn’t really that much older than our young, male narrator, wakes him and says,

“We’re going to go see THE PRETTIEST GIRL IN TEXAS.” “What?”  I whispered all excited and laughed. And then he told me  how he’s seen this stripper out at a bar a couple nights before and this is what she was calling herself. And he told me how the Cowboys were in town for their training camp and they heard about her too. So they brought about half the team out to see her and he’d never seen anything like it.

Our young narrator gets very excited, but things turn out stranger, even disappointing at first, in that they drive up to an –

old double wide trailer, covered in Christmas lights and with a shack built onto the side of it.” And inside, “There was an old woman serving drinks, and a couple of rednecks in cowboy hats. And there was a chubby salesman talking up a storm to somebody’s little daughter sitting on top of a broken pinball machine, eating one of those orange push up thingies.

Our narrator’s discomfort and disappointment subsides, but in a way that is so shocking and transcendent I find it hard to imagine how McClanahan got there.  When the prettiest girl in Texas does come out–

 “she didn’t look like the other girls there. She was older than the rest of them and real skinny, so skinny that her long neck looked even longer…So when the spotlight pulled back she was standing with her right shoulder to us, snapping her fingers and swaying back and forth in her cheerleading costume. And that’s when I saw it.”

Now, what “it” is that he sees, is pivotal, but I refuse to give away the ending, because McClanahan nails the ending so perfectly–and so often nails the endings throughout this entire collection–that he exhibits mastery in that regard.

This is a collection imbued with tenderness and pain, and mostly, with awe. It does that thing which literature can do- break down the class system, the barriers that exist regardless of how less so than before. McClanahan does this by celebrating the most simple of human lives and showing how remarkable they all are. One could compare his characters to those of Ray Carver’s or Larry Brown’s, but also to the characters of Chekhov or Tolstoy. There is an anti-smugness that gave me great pleasure in this book. The stories often feel told rather than written, because the narrator’s voice rings true and strong, evoking the ancient oral tradition.

I’ll conclude with saying that the beauty of the most simple things in life can be overwhelming emotionally –  a poor family helping out an even poorer family in the story “Captain D’s”, the narrator as a little boy trying to make diamonds out of coal — and that beauty is highlighted by the fragility of it all, the death-hauntedness that life is, and if we lived with that knowledge every moment of our lives it would crush us. But to crystallize that notion in art, somehow, someway, helps make it bearable.

Contact McClanahan at http://hollerpresents.com/.

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