McClanahan’s title evokes grotesque caricatures of ignorant hillbillies swilling moonshine from mason jars, but his characters are much more than types. To be honest, I wasn’t sure at first. I’ll admit I heard dueling banjos in my head while reading several passages set in the woods. And at least one character is — how should I put this — dentally challenged. Rural West Virginia, it turns out, is a place where kids play backyard football and eagerly anticipate the release of the new Batman movie, where grown-ups complain about their “slow ass internet” and watch NASCAR races on Sunday. Like most people, his characters simultaneously long for progress and are wary of change. Considering the rest of America’s recent fascination with Southern subcultures, particularly uneducated Southerners depicted on television, McClanahan’s timing couldn’t be better.
I hesitate to label Hill William a novel without using quotation marks. Set in McClanahan’s home state with a narrator named Scott, the book surely draws from the author’s life, at least on some level. McClanahan blurred the line between fact and fiction in Crapalachia by including an appendix in which he points out instances where his memoir diverges from his personal life. Hill William achieves a similar end, even though Tyrant markets the book as a novel. This may illustrate how much has changed since James Frey got in all that hot water, scalding an unwitting Oprah in the process. No matter. What makes his writing extraordinary, regardless of genre, is the intimacy of his voice.
The narrator Scott sings a love song to Rainelle, West Virginia, a hardscrabble town ravaged by forestry and mining. While the spare prose and blue-collar characters make comparisons to Breece D’J Pancake inevitable, McClanhan conjures an offbeat tale that doesn’t quite square with his homeboy’s macho brand of gritty realism. The incredible amount of tenderness in the voice of his young hero reminds me of the boyhood dreams in Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles. Scott always comes across as sincere but never sentimental, for he tempers his earnest curiosity with self-effacing humor. Paraphrasing the poet Randall Jarrell, he reflects on his troubled childhood, “We wring the pain from the darkness and call it wisdom. It is not wisdom. It is pain.”
The story of Hill William follows Scott from childhood to maturity. We are introduced to him as an adult whose uncontrollable anger causes constant fighting with his girlfriend, Sarah. (The inscriptions to Crapalachia and Hill William both read “For Sarah”). A long flashback revisits his youth to explore the root of his anger before returning to the present and his struggle to heal his fragile state of mind. Scott’s coming-of-age unfolds through a disturbing series of unforgettable scenes involving sexual abuse. The first occurs when an older boy named Derrick persuades Scott to give him a blowjob. Rather than feeling embarrassed or ashamed, Scott feels exhilarated, “I laughed a loud laugh because I had finally been born.” But Derrick’s intimidating presence looms over the rest of the novel. Scott stands as a silent witness to multiple instances where Derrick sexually abuses younger, weaker boys and girls. Just after Scott scores with a girl named Patty, his thoughts turn to Derrick:
I closed my eyes and imagined I was taking Derrick in my arms and holding his head against the soft pound of my beating heart. I touched his head. I whispered, “It’ll be all right Derrick. It’ll be all right.”
Then I listened to his cries and held him tight.
It was like he was my child now.
What are we to make of Scott and Derrick? He clearly values Derrick as a friend, quite possibly more than a friend, but emotions become increasingly complicated as their friendship and the novel progress. It doesn’t take a degree in psychology to trace Scott’s anger issues to his relationship with Derrick. Not since Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has a book tackled the confusion of male sexual desire with such honesty.
Since family and friends offer little to help Scott navigate adolescence, he turns to God. The spiritual center of Rainelle is Springdale Church of Christ. As resilient as they are devout, the congregants meet every Sunday, despite the car still lodged in the side of the building from a local woman’s failed suicide attempt. There’s no irony in Scott’s devotion, however. He experiences a genuine sense of wonder and arrives at a deeper understanding of the bewildering world around him while listening to the choir: “And there was something about those voices, so ugly by themselves, but beautiful together, that seemed like the meaning of the world to me.” After much prayer, he decides to get baptized. The ceremony takes a scatological turn before Scott witnesses a quiet miracle. Funny and profound, his epiphany has less to do with religious conversion than revealing what Flannery O’Connor called “the mystery of existence.”
Scott’s path to maturity parallels the destruction of Rainelle’s moutainside. He demonstrates his loyalty to one of his few adult mentors by carving both of their initials into the underbelly of a live turtle. Gay Walter gently rebukes Scott, urging him to respect all creatures, “especially the little things.” A few days later, a character identified only as The Redneck attacks Gay Walter, simply to teach his son how to “knock the shit out of that queer.” We are told the incident happens right before “they started clear cutting the trees and strip mining the mountain.” On a separate occasion, Scott and another boy, Bobbie, wait for Derrick to bring them a porn video. Bobbie gazes towards the mountain and says, “Man they’re cutting that motherfucker down.” When Derrick offends the other two boys by masturbating in front of them, Bobbie rips him for not having the decency to excuse himself. That night, before he goes to sleep, Scott masturbates behind closed doors.
The next morning I awoke and I listened to the tree company tearing away the woods and timber. I heard the chainsaws ripping outside my open window and I heard the dynamite exploding all the mountain tops away for the black rock below. And instead of feeling sad like I did most mornings, I felt something else now. I found myself saying, “Explode. Explode you mountains. Rip them down you fuckers. Take this stinking dirt and leave this land with hatred and death.”
The devastation of Scott’s natural surroundings, in both cases, echoes his loss of innocence. If Scott’s psychological wounds result from stunted personal growth, on the one hand, McClanahan casts a wider net by connecting the dots between his protagonist’s dysfunction later in life and the dislocating effects of environmental destruction.
Setting a story in the South makes dealing with the region’s literary tradition nearly inescapable. O’Connor famously said, “The presence of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.” Whereas Faulkner’s interminable, convoluted prose requires a refresher course from Strunk and White, McClanahan writes short, clipped sentences and employs rapid cut-aways to jump from scene to scene. Each chapter is further subdivided into bite-sized, easily digestible snippets. His compressed aesthetic speaks to our cotemporary moment in which, more and more, we read in pieces. Digital media are broken up into hyperlinks, ads, embedded videos, and other interactive ways of reading. It’s no coincidence that none of McClanahan’s books exceed 200 pages. Even so, the whistle from the Dixie Limited can be heard near the end of the novel. In Faulkner’s masterpiece Absalom, Absalom!, Quentin Compson agonizes over the legacy of the Old South. Once he assembles the story of the Lost Cause from a number of unreliable narrators, his roommate at Harvard asks him why he hates the South, to which he responds, “I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!” Hill William climaxes with a nod to this iconic scene in Faulkner. After therapy fails to help with his anger, Scott returns to his old stomping ground to face his demons. Alone in the woods, he comes to terms with his difficult past in what is, without question, the most shocking and heartrending scene in the novel. “I don’t hate you,” he whispers to the rocks, the dirt, the trees, “I don’t love you.” Scott, like Quentin, remains conflicted about his ties to Rainelle and the way it has shaped who he is, to say the least. It’s tender moments such as these, rendered with such reverence and conviction, that ultimately put McClanahan’s fiction ahead of the approaching curve down the track.
Robert Rea lives in Oxford, Mississippi. He currently teaches courses in American literature at the University of Mississippi.