"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," also the title of the book, is the place to find them.
You might 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 fellow West Virginian, the late writer Breece D'J Pancake, McClanahan doesn't pretty up the locals. 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 might 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 when McClanahan is 14 and is sent to live with his grandmother 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. Children who died in infancy fill the back pages of Ruby's Bible. Cousins and uncles perished in mine disasters.
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 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 mining families, all he knows are their elevations.
Crapalachia is not a biography in any traditional sense. 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.
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 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.
'Crapalachia: A Biography of a Place'
By Scott McClanahan
Two Dollar Radio. 192 pp. $16.