Hill William, by Scott McClanahan. New York, New York: Tyrant Books. 200 pages. $14.95, paper.
Scott McClanahan is one of the rising stars of the Indie Lit World. He has published several story collections and his novel-in-stories, Crapalachia: A Biography of Place has received considerable praise from reviewers. Now he has published his second novel, which is also a novel-in-stories, which I was excited to read and am now proud to review.
As with Crapalachia, Hill William is set in rural West Virginia and follows a young man through his teens and into his early twenties. Crapalachia is a threnody for a wounded region and a disappearing way of life; Hill William is set slightly later in time, when the mountains have already started to be deforested and strip-mined. The chainsaws run almost non-stop in the hills around the town of Rainelle, West Virginia, and eventually no trespassing signs are posted by the lumber companies so that, according to one character, “no one can see the real damage they’re doing.”
The novel opens and closes in the present day, depicting the narrator grappling with depression and anger, but the majority of the novel takes place in the days when McClanahan grew up.
The bookending stories of the narrative deal with the main character’s problems with his girlfriend, Sarah, which are beyond the simple issues one might expect in an average twenty-something’s book. In the opening story, the narrator has a problem with punching himself in the face, which is how the book begins: “I used to hit myself in the face. Of course, I had to be careful about hitting myself now that I was dating Sarah. One night we got into a fight and I went into the bathroom to get rid of that sick feeling in my shoulders, and I did it. I wasn’t feeling any better afterwards, so I hit myself in the face one more time.” The appeal of McClanahan’s writing shows itself already in those two sentences—the directness, the willingness to show himself as vulnerable and somewhat erratic individual, and the velocity of the prose. Subsequently, he has issues with breaking furniture and kicking holes in the wall. Sarah urges him to seek professional help. He agrees as long as the therapist doesn’t wear turquoise jewelry. This slightly off-kilter sense of humor enlivens these stories. Similarly, McClanahan describes a religious experience damaged by a skid mark left on his narrator’s baptism towel. Even with insolent and, at times, mordant scenes, McClanahan manages to bring his stories to powerful conclusions. He peoples the book with grotesque stereotypes, but he reifies them brilliantly, in part because he presents his narrator as such and suggests that he is one himself. The reader meets Derrick, his almost pathologically pervy near-neighbor, and also Gay Walter and Sissy and Brenda and later the hero’s paramour, Sarah, who are all carefully drawn. This cast of characters is brought to life by virtue of the author’s meticulous attention to the psychological details of their internal and external oddities and complexes.
The exploration and sense of self-discovery at the heart of the narrative is also the history of the landscape itself. Its destruction at the hands of strip-mining and logging corporations serves to remind readers of the fragility of place, self, time, and memory. Scott, the novel’s hero, expresses a deep and fundamentally mystical connection to the places that fill his childhood memories. Moreover, his interactions with this landscape provide for scenes in which he, after returning much later in his life, expresses a kind of Proustian nostalgia that will be familiar to anyone who has a love/hate relationship with the place they grew up in. For Scott, the mountains of his hometown are both “graves” and “pregnant bellies, full of babies, waiting to be born.”
It is inevitable that comparisons between Scott McClanahan’s writing and the fiction of Breece D’J Pancake will be drawn. Pancake, a fellow West Virginian, is an author whose short stories evoke a similar time and ethos. This comparison is somewhat apt, but not wholly satisfying. McClanahan’s work, with its restrained lyrical style and its obsession with destroyed landscapes and fading folkways, is wholly original.
It is also an extremely entertaining and rewarding work. McClanahan’s novel, as Michael J. Abolafia of Daily News has eloquently stated, “challenges and defies convention, and forces us to confront the shifty terrains of adolescent sexuality, domestic turmoil, depression and psychological trauma, and a whole host of other life-facets that comprise a truly painful coming-of-age. This novel is an aria for sad, lost things. McClanahan has the power to make us see.” What more can the reader want?
Thomas Baughman is a graduate of the University of Akron. He lives near Canton, Ohio.