That’s been complicated for me in the past year and a half. Because my parents moved away from Beckley in he mid-90s, my strongest connection to the place came through my former in-laws who still live there. My wife and I would go back often. Her parents’ house was the closest thing I had to a childhood home. Christmas was there. Thanksgiving. Family gatherings, involving both her family and mine, over the course of 20 years. I came to think of that little house in the holler as my home and to think of her family as my own.
But when we split up I lost that connection. I still love my ex-mother-in-law. My ex-brother-in-law and his family. My wife’s aunts and uncles and all of their people. But they’re no longer regular parts of my life. I see my ex-mother-in-law once every few months when she’s visiting, but it’s nothing more than a hug and a hello through the passenger side window when they come to pick up the kids. Anything more would be awkward, in all honesty, so I can see how it really can’t be any other way.
I also lost the connection to southern West Virginia. I love it so and miss it dearly, but there’s no reason for me to go back there anymore. And there are a lot of reasons, mostly having to do with the maintenance of my mental health, to avoid it altogether. The past can be a difficult place for me these days. Even thinking about it for too long can derail me for a good while. In light of that, actually spending any real time in a place that is haunted by so many ghosts of the past is a terrible idea, no matter how important the place has been to me in my life.
Thank goodness, then, for Scott McClanahan and his book Crapalachia. A memoir of sorts – he’s called it “nonfiction lite” – it’s best described by its subtitle, “a Biography of a Place.” That place is Danese, West Virginia, not very far from Beckley, in western Greenbrier County, where McClanahan grew up. He tells of his life with his hypochondriac grandmother Ruby, his uncle Nathan who suffered from cerebral palsy and his friend Bill who, thanks to OCD, is constantly listening to “Dust in the Wind” and telling everyone the elevation of every surrounding hill.
McClanahan’s life and family in Danese are not a close approximation to my former life and family in Beckley, but there are enough intersections to make “Crapalachia” an exercise in safe nostalgia for me. He tells of a life of close connections to odd people, the likes of which he’s unlikely to ever know again. Stories of family members who worked in the mines. The weird mix of ancient mountain culture and 80s-90s cable television-driven pop culture which makes the place something less than old, something less than new and something altogether odd for a teenage kid in that place at that time. Eccentric people who might stick out in places like Columbus, Ohio but who were just part of the everyday in southern West Virginia. He name-checks the radio station I worked for. The K-Mart and the Captain D’s on Valley Drive. The kinds of places where I’d get beer and get up to no good when I was 16 years-old.
McClanahan says he wrote the book so he could remember these people and places. So he could document their existence and memory before they started to slip from his mind. But Crapalachia is more than just a personal document. His final chapter starts this way:
“My home was gone. So I decided to write this book. I tried to remember all of the people and phantoms I had ever known and loved. I tried to make them laugh and dance, move and dream, love and see … I put the dirt from my home in my pockets and I travel. I am making the world my mountain.”
I write for a living, but a lot of things I write never see the light of day. Personal things. Bits of my history. Scenes in my life that I’m still trying to process and which I render in type so that I might go back to them one day when I am wiser and see if I can make better sense of it all than I can now.
I can’t explain the comfort I feel knowing that someone not terribly unlike me has done the same thing about many of the same sorts of people and places – ghosts, for all practical purposes – which haunt me still. And that he seems, from a distance, anyway, to have achieved some amount of peace about it all as a result.