"Crapalachia: A Biography of a Place." By Scott McClanahan. Two Dollar Radio. $16.
"The best way to do anything," writes Scott McClanahan in his new memoir, "is to get a bunch of poor people to do it." And "Crapalachia" is the place to find them. You may know it better as Appalachia. Home to coal mining companies whose abuse of their workers and the environment is notorious. Home to people whose grinding poverty has defined them for generations.
And home to McClanahan's dirt-poor relatives, "who all grew up in Danese, W.Va., eating blackberries for breakfast and eating blackberries for lunch and watching the snow come beneath the door in the wintertime."
McClanahan has published three books of short stories ("Stories," "Stories II," and "Stories V!"), and has a novel, "Hill William," coming out this year. Like his fellow West Virginian the late writer Breece D'J Pancake, McClanahan doesn't pretty up the locals. Far from it. He captures the rhythms of their speech no matter how vulgar and, in stories so raw and dredged in black humor they could have been torn straight from the memoirs of Dorothy Allison or Harry Crews, honors their shame and suffering.
It may be a crap place, but it's his, and McClanahan doesn't want to forget it: "Even now, eras later, I wish I had pictures of all the faces I once knew."
His memoir opens with a photograph album of his grandmother Ruby's children, his uncles and aunts: "There were 13 of them. The children had names that ended in Y sounds. That night I couldn't sleep so I got out Grandma's picture books and I learned about my blood and the names that ended in Y sounds. There was Betty and there was Annie and there was Stirley and there was Stanley ... ."
Thus begins Part I, when McClanahan is 14 and is sent to live with Ruby and her son, his uncle Nathan. Ruby, obsessed with death, burial and funerals, collects photographs of the dead, taken with her posed alongside the casket. Uncle Nathan has cerebral palsy, is confined to a wheelchair, and can't talk. His claim to fame is persuading his nephew to siphon beer into his feeding tube.
As vulnerable as they are violent, the McClanahans are prone to committing suicide -- with good reason. Children who died in infancy fill the back pages of Ruby's Bible: "There was a date and then -- baby died. There was a date and then -- baby died. There was a date and then -- girl baby died." Cousins and uncles perished in mine disasters where, in one case, rescue came so late that the victims ate their own shoelaces before they died.
In Part II, McClanahan has moved in with his childhood friend, Little Bill, and refers to himself as "the hero [who] goes out into the world and encounters the people he meets along the way." In fact, McClanahan doesn't go very far. These are the same kids he grew up with, just older, and he describes them with mixed love and fury.
They ridicule each other and make prank phone calls. They buy workout videos to gawk at the women, and have no idea that "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars weren't really from Mars." They are the post-coal generation that doesn't know its history even though it's right there in their "Crapalachia history books": Thousands of workers killed each year in explosions and cave-ins, hundreds drowned in mud coal refuse when a sludge pool burst its dam, big coal companies who called the accidents "an act of God" and refused to pay benefits.
McClanahan embodies this collective amnesia most poignantly in the character of Bill, who grows up to suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Though Bill obsessively names the surrounding mountains, once home to coal miner families, all he knows are their elevations. When a local girl inspires Bill to write poetry, he thinks the words he writes -- "Oh my love, my darling/ I hunger for your touch a long, lonely time" -- are his own.
"Crapalachia" is not a biography in any traditional sense of the word. McClanahan freely blends autobiography and fiction; an appendix contains disclaimers and alternate versions of "the truth" we've just read. At times, it comes closer to an extended prose poem, or a series of parables, or even a small Bible, with its "old, old story" of "they begat and they begat," filled with doves and angels of death and the praise songs that close some of its chapters: "I felt darkness because I had been deep in the hollers, and I knew glory because I had stood on top of the beautiful mountain tops."
At the end of the book, the author returns home to teach school, after "years spent away." His grandma and uncle are dead, and his friends, once goofy pranksters, have turned to robbery and even murder. No matter -- McClanahan's deep loyalty to his place and his people gives his story wings: "So now I put the dirt from my home in my pockets and I travel. I am making the world my mountain." And so he is.