While all of McClanahan’s work — including the recent novels Crapalachia (2013) and Hill William (2013), as well as last year’s excellent graphic novel collaboration with Spanish illustrator Ricardo Cavolo, The Incantations of Daniel Johnston — is very much rooted in the people and landscapes of West Virginia, it bears little relation to what is called regional fiction. It is neither a history lesson nor a minstrel show. Like the late, great, West Virginia writer Breece D’J Pancake, McClanahan writes of the universal with an Appalachian accent.
McClanahan’s prose is a sweaty animal that pounces on the wounded, then drops its kills at our feet and stares mournfully into our eyes. In his eighth work of semi-autobiographical fiction, at the height of his powers, the author bites deeply into himself.
“I was the best drunk driver in the world” is the first sentence of The Sarah Book, as we are introduced to a self-medicating manic-depressive named Scott, who is doing horrible things to his wife Sarah and their two young children. His confessions are presented without self-flagellation, as if shouted at a priest in a dive bar:
I was a grownass man and if I wanted to burn a Bible then Sarah couldn’t tell me not to.
Since I was covered in blood, I decided it was a good idea to go out in public.
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.
Scott plays a great bad guy, and the power of The Sarah Book derives in part from its author’s ability to make the reader feel the depth of his pain in one sentence, then laugh at something awful he did in the next. Plenty of awful things happen, but the most painful is the divorce. This seemingly inevitable event composes the primary arc of novel, but interspersed with chapters detailing the decline of the marriage are shorter sections that take the reader back to happier times.
In some chapters, McClanahan completely removes his misbehaving protagonist from the plot. In these sections, Scott the narrator is stealthily replaced by McClanahan the author, who breaks the fourth wall to illuminate Sarah’s life: who her parents were, what made her good at her job as a hospital nurse, the kind of mother she was. We learn how she and her high school friends “looked up into the sky together and talked about their boyfriends’ beautiful cocks, big beautiful cocks, and Sarah reached up and picked the stars and put them in her pocket still high on mushrooms.”
The novel is called The Sarah Book because it is fundamentally about Sarah. If McClanahan has cast himself as the tortured antihero, then his first wife Sarah Sanders plays the simple human being, neither romanticized nor denigrated. The story is probably truer than autobiography in some places, but generally we get the feeling that this is really the tale of their love. The Sarah Book feels like an effort to convey that love in its most powerful aspects — passion, after all, refers to an ordeal. For Sarah, the ordeal is the marriage itself. For Scott, it’s the divorce and his subsequent descent into hell. But the thing about hell is that the sort of person who winds up there often finds it agreeable:
I opened another can of beer and then I drank it down too. I watched some porn on my phone and I masturbated. I wondered if the Walmart parking lot cameras could see me, but I didn’t care.
I tried to swallow them but my mouth was too full of pills and beer so I got choked and they came out in a gooey melty mess in my palm.
I knew there were a million ways to kill myself and I couldn’t wait to try them all.
The book does a superb job illustrating the sheer messiness of divorce. Only Scott can save himself from a short life in the Walmart parking lot, yet he still needs Sarah’s help in order to go on living without her. This demands self-sacrifice from Sarah, as each of her meetings with Scott gives him false hope that the marriage can be salvaged. Paranoia becomes his reason to live.
Scott snoops through Sarah’s belongings for evidence that she’s seeing a doctor at the hospital where she works, then drives to confront her. Later, during a state-mandated meeting to finalize the divorce, Scott has to be moved to the other side of the room. But by then it’s already over. A long time goes by before Scott and Sarah see each other again, an encounter that offers salvation, finally, albeit in a strange disguise. The author is so relentless in making us feel the way he feels about these experiences that by the time salvation appears it means as much to the reader as it does to Scott.
Many writers who make their names as experimentalists later settle into more traditional forms. McClanahan, however, continues to explore the outer realms of author-reader engagement, as in this intense, deeply affecting novel.