I first came across Scott McClanahan’s work in his 2013 “non-fiction lite” book, “Crapalachia.” McClanahan’s writing — at turns immediate, clear, funny, affecting, raw and, above all else, alive — grabbed me and would not let go. His novel “Hill William” followed in the same year, building on “Crappalachia,” doing everything it did well, but raising the emotional and dramatic stakes. Within the space of months I had a new favorite writer.
It wasn’t just McClanahan’s prose that grabbed me. I was drawn to him because he was writing about a place I knew well, southern West Virginia, where he was born and raised and still lives. I grew up in Beckley and I still consider it home, even if I haven’t lived there for a long time. West Virginia was a character in these stories, every bit as alive as the people who inhabit them, and as such these books felt something like home to me.
All of which made me worry when, soon after I read “Crappalachia” and “Hill William,” I learned that McClanahan was writing a book about the end of his first marriage.
When I read his last two books I was still recovering from my own divorce. Like McClanahan and his first wife, my ex and I were both from Beckley. It’s a small place and there were bound to be parallels in our respective stories. When I heard about his divorce book I was going through a period in which, no matter how well I was doing for long stretches, I could still be derailed fairly easily by a triggering memory or suggestion. Three or four years ago a book on this subject, set in that place, by a writer with McClanhan’s gifts, seemed like more than I’d ever be able to handle. In fact, a small, selfish part of me even hoped it would never see the light of day and that McClanahan would move on to another project.
The last couple of years have been much better to me. I finally sloughed off the last bits of baggage from my divorce and, rather than get bogged down by old memories, I learned how all of it — the good and the bad — fit in the context of my life. I learned how to enjoy and appreciate what my life is rather than worry about what it is not or what it could’ve been if things had gone differently. Most importantly I got married again to a wonderful woman who did more than anyone to help me through it all. My life is pretty fantastic now. A book about a big messy divorce set in the hills of West Virginia isn’t going to destroy me like it might’ve a few years ago.
McClanahan’s “The Sarah Book,” was published earlier this month after a long gestation. I’ll never know how I would’ve received it in 2013 or 2014, but I couldn’t be happier to have it now. It’s a fantastic book, as raw and immediate as his previous work — I devoured it in two sittings which could’ve easily been one — but it possesses a greater emotional depth than anything he’s written before. McClanahan has been described by some as an enfant terrible of independent publishing, but “The Sarah Book” is a work of a man maturing and growing. A book that could only be written by someone who has seen some shit, lived through it and learned something from it all.
Which is not to say that this is a happy and pat story in any way. The (I suspect only slightly) fictionalized story of McClanahan’s divorce is not at all comforting. It’s, above all else, about loss. And death. Not merely the formal loss of a lover through legal process or the figurative death of love or a marriage but about actual loss and literal death and about how all of the stories we tell ourselves and all of the parts we play in this life — as husband and wife, among other things — are, ultimately, meaningless. Indeed, he begins the book with this notion, giving the reader no illusions in its opening passage that it’s about anything else:
“There is only one thing I know about life. If you live long enough you start losing things. Things get stolen from you: First you lose your youth, and then your parents, and then you lose your friends, and finally you end up losing yourself.”
Sarah is a nurse and McClanahan constantly returns to the stories she’d tell him about patients who’d come through Beckley’s ARH hospital where she works. Dead or dying people whose lives, for the most part, do not adhere to the conventional life and death narratives we’re used to hearing in polite fiction. Scott and Sarah have an elderly dog who dies, and his death is not pretty or poetic either. Any effort Scott and Sarah make to impose some sort of sense on the end of their marriage backfires as well. Scott thinks for a time that the marriage can be salvaged, not because there is anything inherently salvageable in it, but because, dammit, that’s how the story was supposed to go and how dare Sarah fuck with the ending? But as “The Sarah Book” goes on, McClanahan impresses upon the reader that, no, that’s not how things go. Everything dies eventually. People. Dogs. Marriages. No matter what your plans for them happened to be.
Despite it all, though, it’s not a sad book. At least it wasn’t to me, because McClanahan shows us that, even if death is inevitable and entropy is undefeated, there are moments of grace to be found in life. Or, at the very least, moments when we can sit and appreciate that life is less of a drama than it is a brief period when we all just try to do the best we can and, sometimes, actually manage it.
Sarah can find humor — and does, often — even when life is bringing her to tears. Their children can find happiness being held upside down by their grandfather, even when their dad is falling apart. Scott and his friend Chris can find moments of joy even when both of them are at their worst. The elderly dog can experience one last good healthy piss on the way to the vet’s office before his undignified end. Scott and Sarah can each find love again, with other people, even when it seemed like their divorce was the end of the world.
The final scene of the book features Scott and his new wife sitting down for burgers and fries with Sarah and her new husband with Scott and Sarah’s kids in tow. After all of the drama of the previous 200 pages, life is all about slightly awkward conversation, french fries, ketchup on a mother’s fingers and a three-year-old boy looking up at the sky at airplanes. Is it anticlimax or is it a clear-eyed realization that, no matter what goes on inside our heads and our hearts life, in all of its quotidian detail, goes on? I suppose one can take it any number of ways. But having lived through much of what McClanahan did in “The Sarah Book,” I was happy to see it. Drama and pain can only sustain a person for so long and, since death and loss is inevitable, it’s better to push that stuff aside as best one can and do as much living in the short time we have as possible.
“The Sarah Book” does a masterful job of chronicling the pain and drama of a divorce, but there is hope in it as well. We need to endure the former but acknowledge the latter, even when it seems impossible. Thankfully, we have someone as talented and insightful as Scott McClanahan as our guide.