Scott McClanahan’s short, impressionistic “biography of a place” has a few strikes against it right out of the bullpen. It’s from a small press in Columbus, Ohio; it’s by an unknown author from West Virginia; and it’s got a hideous cover featuring a detail from a 1917 Australian political cartoon.
But readers should persevere, because “Crapalachia” is the genuine article: intelligent, atmospheric, raucously funny and utterly wrenching. McClanahan joins Daniel Woodrell and Tom Franklin as a master chronicler of backwoods rural America.
His setting is the hollows of West Virginia, places of moonshine and dilapidated churches. Flyspeck towns called Rainelle, Danese and Backus Mountain had known a breaking-even prosperity until the mines started closing. “It was all gone now,” we’re told. “There were only mountains and a twisty-turny road with chug holes so deep you could bury your baby inside of them.”
McClanahan’s stories, which read like a hybrid of fact and fantasy, are full of characters like Six Toed Russell (“Russell was always good at math”); foreign-exchange student Tiertha Timsina, “who arrived in Crapalachia knowing only two words of English”; and the author’s friend Lee Brown, who once drove to Lewisburg so he could “sit in a trust-fund hippie restaurant and order a 15 dollar hamburger (raised without steroids or preservatives).” And everybody has a favorite story to tell, whether it be about the Greenbrier Ghost or the folklore of Sewell Mountain (“He told us about Stephen Sewell living in a tree, and running from the Shawnee through the rhododendron bushes before they finally caught and killed him in the woods”).
The heart of these stories, however, is McClanahan’s relationship with Uncle Nathan, with his “eyes as blue as Christmas tree lights,” and saucy, melodramatic Grandmother Ruby, who’s constantly imagining her approaching demise: “She told me that it wasn’t a man or a woman, but it was the angel of death all right. She said that the angel was smiling at her. The angel had black teeth and I believed her.” The antics of these two characters and the author’s uncomplicated love for them makes their deaths in the course of these stories all the more piercing.
McClanahan chooses his material and shifts his registers like a master musician. Although the narrative is full of boisterous stories about troll dolls, crotchless panties and Ruby’s chicken and gravy (“bubbling up all brown and beautiful”), there’s also some hard-won pain in these pages and some evocative writing: “Let us pretend that we will never die. Let us meet at this address a thousand years from now. Let us meet in Danese alive and not dead, alive and not dead, alive and not dead.”
When McClanahan is in grade school and learns of the South losing the Civil War, he daydreams: “Imagine if we would have won. Imagine Crapalachia as the center of the world. Imagine skyscrapers rising from the mountains.” Readers who find this captivating book will have no trouble imagining Crapalachia as the center of the world — at least for 170 pages.
Donoghue is managing editor of the online magazine Open Letters Monthly.
By Scott McClanahan
Two Dollar Radio. 170 pp. Paperback, $16