TNB Book Review: The Sarah Book, by Scott McClanahan

“Country roads, take me home

To the place I belong

West Virginia, mountain momma

Take me home, country roads”

-John Denver, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”

 

If I were partial to the Denver School of Criticism, I might spend hours coming up with pithy sobriquets for Scott McClanahan. I’d call him the Chaucer of Coal Country, Mountain Bukowski, or some other such shite. I’d focus on the stereotyped version of West Virginia many of us carry in our heads, turn McClanahan’s story into a combo of The Outsiders sacking the Sam’s Club snack aisle and life in the U.S.S.R. circa 1983, a place that really wasn’t that bad compared to the coal-dusted, oxy-encrusted, Trumpist mayhem of today’s West Virginia.

But why go to all that trouble when it’s already been done ad nauseam to McClanahan and just about every other writer remotely connected with Appalachia? In their general, genial devotion to the Denver School, many critics have done a double-edged disservice to Appalachia’s writers, made it easier for readers to pretend to take them seriously, harder to do so. So, in the interest of fairness, let’s leave John Denver and his country roads deep in the rearview. (See the bowl cut and wire-rimmed glasses, smell the stewing possum as we drive away?) Let’s forget The Sarah Book has anything to do with West Virginia, or Appalachia for that matter. It’s not hard. Take McClanahan’s stunning opening paragraph (which doubles as his stunning opening chapter):

“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.”

Something between a novel and McClanahan’s memoir of his first marriage, The Sarah Book is so universal in themes, so relatable in voice and eloquent in its realizations, that you never doubt its authority. Which is precisely the way to deliver material that straddles the line between fiction and nonfiction. Rather than constantly pulling the reader aside, winking and nodding and fretfully suggesting, “maybe this is true, maybe it isn’t, I’m not sure,” McClanahan lets the story stand on its own merits. Its merits as a story, that is; not as empirical truth. Which frees him from the constant back-and-forth writers dealing with similarly slippery material can fall prey to.

From the beginning and a morning drunk-driving escapade, McClanahan’s struggles with substance abuse are at the center of The Sarah Book. Yet he never relies on his drinking and drug use as excuses for sloppy writing—for the confused thoughts and wild narrative leaps that doom so much “drunk fiction.” Instead, McClanahan uses his altered states and their attendant problems to build suspense, as in that first scene when the reader realizes all too late McClanahan’s small children are in the car with him. Or, a few pages later when he’s pulled over by a state trooper. Convinced he’s finally been caught, McClanahan brilliantly convinces his reader of the same, only to escape with a warning. As he drives off, giddy with adrenaline, McClanahan revels in his self-destructiveness, the addict’s fundamental narcissism and the evil it can lead to, “The children were still crying, but I didn’t care now. I was free and I wasn’t caught and I was driving our death car so fast and unafraid. I was destroying our lives now and it felt so fucking wonderful.”

There’s a strange, foundational honesty to The Sarah Book; not simply truthfulness, but a willingness by McClanahan to be caught in his own, obvious lies, the delusions and flights of mania the addict uses to justify his behavior. But beyond even its fundamental honesty, I come back to the intellectual and philosophical depth of McClanahan’s work. Though the book’s beginning is truly memorable, it’s just one example of the depth of human experience McClanahan’s able to convey in his writing. Another:

“Sarah thought of all the true tattoos we never get. She wondered why people didn’t tattoo themselves with the truth like I am not a butterfly. I am not a unicorn. I am not a snake. I’m afraid. I’m dead inside.”

And another, as he eulogizes his dead dog, Mr. King:

“I told him that our suffering is a hug from god and one day we would understand, but then I stopped and told him I was sorry because I didn’t believe in God.”

I could keep quoting McClanahan for pages and pages, but that would give you an excuse not to read the book. Which I can’t bring myself to do. Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book is just so damn good—so funny and honest and wise, so shocking, soulful and, at times, depraved—you must experience it for yourself. Once you have, you’ll realize this is one West Virginia writer who has gone beyond regionalism and the need for literary head pats. Scott McClanahan has charted his own path, down out of the mountains, away from the clichés so many of us take for fact.

TNB Book Review: Joseph by Dena Rash Guzman

 

“I Dug the Hole Already, joseph”

 

My beauty a shovel.

A spoon of aconite and arsenic.

In your mouth refusing food.

To beg instead a stylish garter drama.

Prussic acid gimlet.

Open veins bleed hell.

I’ll ring your bell, son.

I will ring your bell.

–Dena Rash Guzman, Joseph

 

The word “revelation” is a popular superlative in literary circles, popular to the point of overuse. It’s not the only one, of course. There’s an element of hyperbole to criticism, one born of multiple impulses: some noble; some less so. Does the critic desire so passionately to illuminate the art before him that he fails it and his audience, falls back on hyperbole because it conveys at least part of what he means to say? Or does he do it for himself, try to prove his own intellect by overstating the success (or failure) of another person’s art?

Whatever the reasons, the field of literary criticism is littered with many a would-be “masterpiece” and misnamed “tour de force”; more questionable “statements” and suspect “wonders” than the dead of Troy and Agincourt, Gettysburg and Moscow combined. Sometimes, though, no matter how super the superlative; the word fits. On those occasions, the critic has every right to use a term such as “revelation.” Perhaps, in some ways, he even has an obligation to do so. But he also has an obligation to justify it.

From the outset of Joseph, Dena Rash Guzman’s second poetry collection, we see a literary superstructure developing before us, an architecture delineated not just in the volume’s titling but in the way each of Guzman’s poems is—in turns lyrical and prosaic, blunt and sophisticated, wildly funny and blithely caustic—directed at a different Joseph. The key question in considering Guzman’s vision for the book is the role of her ever-changing Joseph? Is he protagonist? Antagonist? Oblivious target? All three and then some?

From a symbolic standpoint, it’s possible Guzman’s Joseph is the Joseph of biblical fame, the poet casting her predominately (if not exclusively) female narrators as Mary stand-ins, addressing gender dynamics reinforced by thousands of years of Christianity in the West. As a woman and an artist, it would make perfect sense for Guzman to tweak and even attack the patriarchal power structure in this way. Which she does. But it’s clear to me Guzman is going for more.

Beyond the biblical lies Joseph’s identity as the modern (though not as much as he thinks) Everyman. In one poem, Joseph can be the hipster bro who’s a secret misogynist. In another, the chauvinist cave-dude who longs for a return to the 50’s. Not all Guzman’s Josephs are bad or wrong, though. These are real men, often the average father or friend, husband or lover. They have faults, but many of them also have virtues. And it’s this synthesis of dramatic reality and literary symbolism that helps explain why Joseph is such a powerful collection. That said, we might alternately see the title as ironic, the book not about Guzman’s Josephs at all. Rather, it might be about the impact history’s billions of Josephs have had on women as a group. Not that these interpretations preclude each other. In fact, they work quite effectively together, layered one on the other; another hint that this is indeed a special, clearly and cleverly thought out collection. With unshakeable loyalty to her personal truth, catchy rhythms, and surprising, at times brilliant, wordplay Guzman creates an environment in which Joseph can be both symbol and individual. For me, though, it’s the consistent humor of this collection that most sets it apart.

 

“Fuck it, I’m Going for a Manicure, joseph”

 

Roses r read

Violets r blue

The only cure

Is a few isolated stag colonies

Inhabited by men who have mutated

To survive solely on Doritos.

 

Honesty is often at the heart of humor and it certainly is central to this collection, though not always in the service of comedy. These poems have been lived by their narrators, Guzman the filter. Often, perhaps, they are autobiographical, but who can say how often and when? I suppose Guzman; but she’s not telling. And when you’re as honest as Guzman, it doesn’t matter. You are conveying truth even if it’s not a truth you have physically lived. As at the end of “I Wrote an Open Letter to the Baby Deer I Nearly Hit Tonight, joseph”, when she looks at the world through the eyes of that deer’s mother.

 

“I can say with certitude that I was driving carefully tonight.

When your eyes and fur came before me I did the thing –

I slammed on my brakes. The road lit up bright red in back

of my car, a German number. It handles well under stress

like beasts with four legs just like you still have.

Inches from your shell-shocked little face.

I stopped. Your mother came after you, rearing

As I might have. Her life with us here must be difficult,

all her nights most likely fraught by ancestral memories

of wolf packs hunting her herd. She might be a single mom.”

 

For this critic, when it comes to Dena Rash Guzman’s Joseph, the term revelation is deserved and even essential. Not only for me as a man but in imagining all the other Josephs out there, knowing they’re not necessarily evil, but they’ve got a thing or two hundred wrong, that perhaps the most constructive thing we can do is consider the possibility we’re not the subject at all. Perhaps men need to spend some time not imagining themselves as the hero (or villain) in every story.

Filled with humor and lyricism, wisdom and truth, Joseph is a window into the realities of being a woman, a significant collection that, in early 2017, could not have been released at a more appropriate time. Call it brilliant. Call it impressive. Call it a revelation or come up with your own superlative. Just buy it. And read it. Now.