STORIES II: A REVIEW, AN ESSAY BY THE AUTHOR AND A STORY FROM THE BOOK
Scott McClanahan is from West Virginia, which, as he has to explain to another person in STORIES II, is not just a part of Virginia, but an entire state of its own.
Scott wears suits from Sears. He came to Chicago last summer and we read together and we drank beer out of a glass boot at this German restaurant. We saw German Larry Bird play in a polka band. Scott also showed me his impression of a person laughing while typing a mean comment on the internet.
All of this, plus how much I liked his first book, STORIES, and his new book, STORIES II, has solidified Scott McClanahan as a friend and as an author who I will continue to read. He writes unselfconsciously minimalist stories about people from West Virginia. Recently, he sent me his latest collection, called STORIES II, from Six Gallery Press.
STORIES II returns to the themes of STORIES: West virginia, being a person around other people, and figuring things out when you thought they were already figured out.
STORIES II also returns to the signature tone of STORIES I. He writes in a way that is conscious of both his own absurdity and that of others, without overdoing either. He makes it really easy to like the narrator and to learn from the narrator’s experiences. Scott also knows how to balance humor and sadness.
In STORIES II, we meet a retarded man selling newspapers. We meet the “fever” of suicide. We meet Scott working as a telemarketer, talking to a man who weeps and begs him to stay on the phone. And we meet all of it through the character Scott McClanahan. He writes himself as a character really well. I think what makes it work, for me, is that he is able to go in and out of being purely subjective, to realizing things outside of himself. He writes familiar situations with unfamiliar outcomes.
Scott’s style is the most lively minimalism I have read. Many sentences begin with “and” or “so” and contain the word “just.” The result is a really smooth minimalism. Not a minimalism that recognizes itself, but one that just happens. If you are ever able to see Scott read, you will understand what I mean. Many of his stories begin as though you just walked up to a conversation. Not, “in the middle of things” but, “in the middle of thoughts.” For example, one story begins, “I’ve stolen things before though.” The result is that it’s like you are put into an already-begun conversation.
I asked Scott to write an essay to include with this review. Here it is:
POSSIBLE TOPICS FOR A SHORT ESSAY I WILL NEVER WRITE
HOPEFULLY SAM PINK WILL NOT BREAK MY LEGS AFTER THREATENING TO BREAK MY LEGS WHEN I REFUSED TO WRITE A SHORT ESSAY FOR HIM ABOUT STORIES II.
by Scott McClanahan
Possible Topic #1: When I was six years old my uncle took me to a bar in NYC, where Andre the Giant was in the middle of a drinking bout. I watched Andre the Giant drink 175 pints of beer before he passed out in the middle of the floor. Everyone laughed and then the owner and six other men tried to move Andre before realizing he weighed close to 600 pounds. At closing time, he was still passed out, so they simply surrounded him with bar stools and locked the place up. I often wondered what Andre thought the next morning when he awoke in a strange place, in a strange city, surrounded by bar stools, and alone.
Possible Topic #2: I really like this film Keep the River on Your Right. It’s about an anthropologist who spent time living with a cannibalistic tribe near the Amazon. The anthropologist also practiced cannibalism during his time there. He left because he was ashamed of himself though. A journalist asked him after he returned home if he was ashamed because he had consumed human flesh.
He said “no.”
He wasn’t ashamed he consumed human flesh. He was ashamed because it tasted delicious.
Possible Topic #3: I had a friend when I was in junior high named Jenny Tiller. She was a dwarf and I had a gym class with her. One day I looked over and she was doing something amazing. I looked over and she was doing the most perfect cartwheel you’ve ever seen in your life. I’m not talking about a normal cartwheel. I’m talking about a freaking aesthetically perfect cartwheel. If you’re ever in West Virginia, and you want to see the greatest cartwheel known to man, just let me know. We can go to her house.
Possible Topic #4: I met country star Little Jimmie Dickens once. He signed my Grand Ole Opry picture program, “Hello Friend. J Dickens.”
I thought to myself, “I’m not your friend.”
Possible Topic #5: Ah shit. I just re-read my e-mail. Sam was wanting a short essay on the book, Stories II, not an essay on cannibalism and cartwheels.
Possible Topic #6: One of my favorite writers is Merle Haggard. He decided to rob a store when he was 16 years old and loot the place. He got drunk with a friend before hand and they decided to break in through the back door. They took a crowbar to it but it wouldn’t open. They pushed and pulled and pushed and pulled. It finally busted open and they ran into the store and started grabbing shit. They saw 20-25 people still shopping inside. The store was still open. Haggard spent the next four years in San Quentin.
Possible Topic #7: When I was a kid my mother routinely told me when I was trying to be cool and acting like other people wanted me to act, “When Aristotle died, do you think the gods asked him, ‘Aristotle why weren’t you more like Socrates?’ No, they asked him, ‘Aristotle why weren’t you more like Aristotle?’”
God bless the Momma’s of this world.
And here is a story from STORIES II:
I didn’t have any money for dinner really. I mean I’d never even been on a date before—or at least a date, date. See when I was in school it was all about hooking up at parties and hanging out together with a whole group of friends and maybe finding each other later that night. But this was like a real date. Or at least it felt like a real date when I called her up that morning and asked her if she wanted to go up to Pipestem State Park and look out over the mountains. I told her I didn’t have any money for dinner, but she didn’t seem to mind, or at least she thought I was joking. So that afternoon I picked her up and drove out to Pipestem. And once we got there, we walked hand in hand, up to the observation tower, and she started telling me about how she used to have a lazy eye when she was a kid. I guess it was so bad she even had to wear an eye patch in order to correct it, and all the kids at school started calling her, “the pirate.”
So she laughed.
And then we both laughed at how ridiculous the whole world was.
And so we kept right on laughing and started climbing the steps of the observation tower, counting them on the way up—1,2,3,4,5,6,10,20,30,40. Then after about 80 we finally got up to the top and caught our breath. It was beautiful up there. And so we laughed some more and I told her what a lucky girl she was being on such an expensive date and if she played her cards right I had a whole pocketful of coupons for the Pizza Hut lunch buffet. If we scraped together our nickels and dimes then maybe we could go. She laughed again and I noticed she had a cracked front tooth, which looked so cute when she ginned. And so we stood there looking out over the mountains.
I held her hand and we didn’t laugh anymore.
I pointed at the mountains and told her how they were formed.
I told her how the mountains weren’t created by the last ice age really, but were created by water run off from the last ice age. And so she stood and smiled. And then she told me how boring that story was. So I kissed her and tasted the taste of chewing gum on her chewing gum tasting lips.
And then it was quiet.
But then we noticed this other couple walking up to the observation tower from below. It was a guy and a girl. They counted their steps on the way up too–1,2,3,4,5,6,10,20,30,40.
And it was this old guy who looked like he was about 40 and he had a trach scar. He was with this pretty girl who couldn’t have been anymore than 20. They were the type of couple that makes you think, what the hell is that girl doing with that guy?
But here they were holding hands and they had a pizza and a two liter bottle of pop and a picnic basket full of picnic stuff.
So they giggled all out of breath when they got to the top of the tower just like we had.
Then they noticed us and nodded their heads “hello.”
We grinned and nodded our heads “hello” back.
Then we went right back to talking, as they sat up all of their picnic stuff on the other side like they were boyfriend and girlfriend. They had paper plates, and paper cups, and diet pop, and pizza.
We just stood on the other side listening to them.
Kim said, “That pizza smells good. I’m getting hungry.”
But I didn’t say anything about it, wondering if she really thought I was just joking about us not going to dinner. I wasn’t joking though. I really wasn’t.
And then all of a sudden I saw something.
What was that?
I saw something moving in the woods beneath us. And then I saw this woman walking out of the woods towards the observation tower. She was wearing Mom clothes and she had a Mom haircut.
She was screaming something, coming closer to us, but I couldn’t make it out.
She screamed again and this time it sounded shotgun loud.
She shouted, “Steven. Steven. You cheating motherfucker. Get your ass down here right now.”
And so Steven the cheating motherfucker, just sat overtop of his pizza all Indian legged and not knowing what to do.
He dropped his head like he was praying about it.
My stomach dropped.
Kim looked nervous.
IT WAS STEVEN’S WIFE.
And the wife had two little boys with her too, dragging them behind her like old dirty sheets.
The little boys were crying, saying, “Mommy, Mommy.”
The pretty girl Steven was with looked like she didn’t know what to do. It was like she didn’t even know he was married.
Finally Steven got up and walked down the steps of the observation tower 80,70,60,50,40,10,9,8,7,6, saying with an aw shucks voice on the way, “Ah honey. We haven’t done nothing. We were just talking and eating some pizza.”
But his wife stood at the bottom of the stairs holding onto the little fists of the two little confused kids.
She screamed, “HOW dare you—you stupid asshole.” And then she whispered all pathetic, “You told me it was over. You told me it was finished.”
And so Kim stood there scared and said, “Scott. I think we should leave. This is none of our business. We need to get out of here.”
But I just giggled, “Ah no. It’s alright.”
And then we watched Steven’s pretty friend walk all the way down to the bottom of the steps. She was nervous and scared too.
His wife started screaming at her, “You little bitch whore. You want to introduce yourself to your fucking boyfriends’ wife and kids.”
Then Steven said, “Honey she’s not a whore. She’s just a friend.”
And then there was something else moving in the trees.
It was an old guy who I took to be Steven’s father in law, and a muscular and bearded, guy who I took to be Steven’s brother in law.
It was Steven’s in-laws alright.
Slowly they walked over to where the wife was screaming and kicking and kicking and crying. And then Steven held out his hand to the father in law and the brother in law too, but instead of shaking his hand—they jumped on him. The brother in law got a hold of Steven’s arms and then he threw Steven on the ground. Then he was on top of Steven punching him in the face and the father in law just stood by watching.
The father in law was smoking a cigarette and after a while he started kicking Steven in the side.
He kicked soft.
Then he puffed his cigarette. Puff.
Then he kicked again.
Then he puffed his cigarette. Puff.
Then he kicked again.
I guess Steven had been warned about this type of behavior before.
“Scott. I think we should get out of here,” Kim said. “What if they have a gun?”
I just giggled and said, “Ah no. Settle down. You watch too much TV. They’re just gonna kick his ass a little bit.”
So the wife started chasing the young girl towards the woods so she could beat the shit out of her, shouting “You little bitch. You little bitch. I’m gonna beat the shit out of you.”
The two little kids sat in the grass watching it all.
And then I saw it.
So I pointed over to the pizza and it was just sitting there all alone and delicious.
I giggled and rubbed my belly like I was hungry.
And Kim just looked at me…
“Oh No,” She said. “Oh No. We can’t.”
But I held her hand and walked over to where the pizza was.
She kept saying, “No. No.”
And so I picked up the two liter and poured some pop out in the paper cups.
And then I handed it to her saying in my best British accent, “Me lady.”
“Scott what are we doing?” She said.
I handed her a piece of pizza and I took a piece of pizza too.
I said, “O don’t worry. We’re just gonna watch the show.”
And so we watched the wife dressed in her mom haircut and dressed in her mom clothes chasing the girl into the woods before the girl finally fell. The wife smacked her in the side of the head. Then she started ripping out a clump of the girl’s hair, until a big clump came out.
It was a hair extension.
And then the wife smacked the girl a couple more times before walking back and screaming at Steven who was now held in a head lock, “Steven I swear to god. I’m getting a divorce and you’ll never see these kids. You’ll never see these babies again. You’ll never see these babies.”
And so Kim and I all sat eating the pizza and it felt so wrong to watch it all. We watched one of the little boys on his knees digging in the dirt with an old stick. Mommy was crying, and Daddy Steven was crying and bleeding, and Mommy’s Daddy and Mommy’s Brother were crying and punching. But the little boys were on their knees acting like this wasn’t happening. They looked like the whole world was invisible almost. They acted like they were invisible too.
And so we looked at each other.
We watched the brother in law whack Steven with one more kidney punch before finally getting off. Steven was coughing up blood now.
And then the brother in law got up and started walking away with his father who was still smoking on his cigarette. Puff. Puff.
The wife was gone too, but we could hear her cries from far away. It sounded like an animal dying.
After five minutes Steven finally sat up on all fours and started spitting out more blood.
His face was all swollen up like a rotten watermelon.
He kept putting his fingers to his lips like he was trying to see if he was still bleeding.
Yep, he was still bleeding alright.
And so Kim and I sat and ate their pizza and we drank their pop and we watched it all because this wasn’t our life being destroyed. We looked at the invisible little boys and they looked at us, and now we all wanted to be invisible too.