As a liberal-arts major at a small state college in southwest Virginia, I felt duty-bound to take a class in Appalachian studies. We studied the mores and folkways of Scots-Irish descendants whose principal aspiration, as near as I could tell, was to be left the fuck alone. I wrote a research paper on the practice of taking up serpents during Pentecostal worship services. Hunkered down in the library's basement watching footage of snake handlers and strychnine drinkers, I thought to myself, Who are these people?
Then there was the Appalachian studies I conducted firsthand during my shift as a midnight cook. The hamburger flippers on parole, the cashiers who came to work with black eyes, the brawl that broke out when a busload of out-of-state basketball players arrived just as the Pulaski County Speedway released its drunken horde were more instructive than any textbook.
These are Scott McClanahan's kind of people.
The West Virginia native is the author of Crapalachia: A Biography of a Place. There aren't any yokels in overalls in his new book. No barefoot girls in homespun dresses. No snake handlers.
Peppered with family history and community lore, McClanahan's exploration of small-town life in coal-mining country is as educational as any documentary.
For most writers, that's a one-way ticket to the regional section of the local library, but McClanahan's style is as seductive as a circuit preacher's. His message is finely honed yet plainspoken, so it comes across as unvarnished truth.
"We drove through the places where Ruby had given birth to babies in shacks that no longer stood, and where grandfather sold moonshine. We gunned it up Backus Mountain with my Uncle Nathan, sitting in the back of the truck trying to hang on with his palsy legs."
Crapalachia is McClanahan's third book about the Mountain State but his first long-form treatment of the subject nearest and dearest to his heart. He couples a savage sense of humor with a willingness to revisit life's most uncomfortable moments. From head lice and wrestling maneuvers to feeding tubes and hawg balls—yes, hog testicles—McClanahan's humor ranges from scatological to sophomoric.
"Well I'm here to tell you that I like my women like I like my fried chicken—a little bit greasy and with plenty of fat around the edges."
There are no sacred cows in Crapalachia. Everyone is fair game: family members, childhood friends, former coworkers. A mountain is a mountain, a shit stain a shit stain. He doesn't dress things up or dumb them down.
He shows us things as they are in his corner of West Virginia, and what they are is confusing, just like everywhere else. Why did his grandmother chase away the only woman his handicapped uncle ever loved? How did his childhood friend become a murderer? Why does everything have to change?
McClanahan doesn't have the answers, but that doesn't make the questions any less important, and the urgency with which he poses them transcends the page.
In a passage that follows a litany of McClanahan's family, he writes, "These are the names that are written inside my heart, but my heart will die one day. So I want these names to stay inside this book forever, but if this book is needed for fire, then set this book on fire."
This kind of direct address is not uncommon in McClanahan's work. When he asks us to be kind to one another or tells us he's searching for us, he reminds us that the community of readers is just that—a community.
Every time I read one of McClanahanís books, I want to get in the car and drive to Rainelle, W.V., so he can show me the places in his stories. Then I want to drive across the Blue Ridge Mountains to southwest Virginia so he can show me what I'd missed, what I'd been too blind to see. But even that misses the point.
The lesson from Crapalachia is that all of us are searching for a place to call home. Chances are, the place we're looking for exists only in our memories, a place that can only be resurrected in stories. Crapalachia is both an homage and a eulogy for a place where, through the sorcery of McClanahan's storytelling, we can all pull up a chair and find ourselves at home.