Scott McClanahan's The Sarah Bookby Eric Nelson
The Sarah Book
(Tyrant Books, 2017)
Harry Crews remembers his mother using this word to describe his childhood friendship with the white dog Sam that followed him everywhere on the farm in rural Bacon County, Georgia during the Great Depression. In his memoir A Childhood: The Biography of Place, the famed writer gave the relationship a greater depth in relaying the imagined conversations between tyke and canine. As Crews said, “But I always came out on top when we talked because Sam could only say what I said he said, think what I thought he thought.”
“It would be a good long time before I started thinking of Sam as a dog instead of a person,” he mentions. For the narrator in Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book, this realization is one that’s rejected, akin to a child’s refusal to believe in the inauthenticity of Santa Clause. Halfway through the book, he addresses his dying dog King in the same manner: “Why do you want to stay here, Mr. King?' And Mr. King said, 'Because you're kind to the helpless things.'"
Such a scene is one of many scattered throughout that seem to serve as pit stops of pathos on a road trip whose destination is the perdition of a marriage. But it isn’t the only one featuring animals or callbacks to writers that precede the author. Thirty pages later at the beginning of Part III, the narrator and his best friend Chris find a bunch of kittens in a dumpster behind their apartment, which they begin to feed. The results are akin to those in Denis Johnson’s story “Emergency” in which two men discover a litter of baby rabbits while driving down a rural highway. As McClanahan’s narrators in his works are prone to make declarations, it can hardly be audacious for a reader to conclude that neither protagonist has the Midas Touch. Any semblance to “precious” has long disappeared in a haze of arguments and drinking binges by the time the reader is given carefully constructed glimpses into them.
In the 1961 essay “The Fact in Fiction” writer and literary critic Mary McCarthy posits that the novel as a form is one of fact and gossip, going so far as to say “The more poetic a novel, the more it has the air of being a factual document.” While McClanahan certainly has the literary critic’s dead horse – i.e. “a lyrical quality” as exemplified through his use of repetition and onomatopoeia, The Sarah Book is by definition a work of gossip.
The reader, therefore, is set with the challenge of deciphering the code carved on the fence of exclusion and inclusion, a DIY hermeneutics kit. Photos within the body of the work that appear to be of the author and his children add a sense of authority to gain our trust. Ultimately this doesn’t change the simple fact that as a first person narrative, gaps are inherent. But while the similarities between McClanahan and Johnson (or Crews) could be considered coincidental, what is left unsaid is certainly a conscious decision and an oft-dangerous one given the context. The author’s narrators live in worlds of moral relativism. “I was a horrible person sometimes. Then I smiled and whispered to a world of imaginary people, ‘And you know what? You are too,’” he ponders after a visit to a strip club that ends predictably. I was often left wondering what was said on the other end of a telephone conversation told in exposition or why an important detail was suddenly forgotten in the midst of action. As the book is marketed as “semi-autobiographical” like his previous works Crapalachia and Hill William, both published in 2013, it can only fairly be judged as a work of fiction instead of the success de scandale it is clearly meant to be.
Assessment without projection on the critic’s part is nearly impossible, even if one builds an argument without any conscious use of pathos as a rhetorical device, the I or my, or maybe a personal reminiscence. We see it not only in reviews but in interviews with authors as well, one of the laziest questions (directed more so at women) being “Was this based on personal experience?” Whether or not the answer is affirmative is as moot as the critic’s own wish of what should have been written instead. McClanahan’s narrator too is fond of projection, asking questions of his chicken wings in his car only for them to reply.
Our protagonist is clearly a man in emotional pain trying to rationalize often selfish behavior as a coping mechanism. While each vignette seems to end with a self-assurance of some sort, there are still moments that buck what German professor Hans Robert Jauss called “the horizon of expectations,” in this case what we anticipate based on our current social mores. When is smashing a computer a way to vent anger and when is it an action meant to instill fear in someone else even without a spoken threat of violence towards said person? One gets the feeling that the punches not pulled are meant to give the air of vulnerability to gain sympathy. After all, great literature is meant to manipulate our emotions and succeeds when we become lost in the story, the verse, barreling through page after page past our bedtime or subway stop, or stopping to reread a passage. Unlike his previous works though, the signature McClanahan euphony is not enough to camouflage the unanswered questions that often threaten to disrupt the pace, nor the predictable anecdotes.
As we’ve seen before, McClanahan is most comfortable in the world of the surreal, one of constant psychological and emotional turmoil. The child who soiled a baptism gown for the stain to become a Jesus Fish and a Happy Face in Hill William is now the adult who simply shit the bed.
An apt comparison can be found outside of the realm of literature onscreen in some of the work of actor Nicolas Cage. Whereas Cage proclaimed “"I am not a demon. I am a lizard, a shark, a heat-seeking panther” on Terry Woogan’s talk show in 1992, McClanahan extols our narrator in a WalMart parking lot:
“And I was their king of beef jerky. I was their emperor of soda.”
Neither are obsessed as much with honesty as they are with truth. Within this paradigm, The Sarah Book posits the fictional Scott much closer to Cage’s character of literary agent Peter Loew from Vampire’s Kiss than the romantic baker Ronny in Moonstruck or the alcoholic Ben Sanderson in Leaving Las Vegas, even as our protagonist on page guzzles gin while driving his children. In their prime, both display a manic energy and show leanings towards the operatic and the shamanic, the latter of which can be seen should a reader get a chance to see McClanahan read live. Emotion is conveyed on a grand scale that extends beyond the author’s use of anaphora that once acted as a crutch. If word is bond, we as readers have been asked to join in a pact of trust with the implied author, one written as remembrance of emotional trauma, the nature of which subconsciously hinders total recall. Our narrator is thrust into a journey, dragged against his will. For every Flying J we pull into on this expressway for moments of reprieve with stories of giving birth or first dates, the breaks are quick-lived and we’re back on the road flying on a tight schedule towards divorce court. Life is this highway and we are damned to ride it all night long as hitchhikers.
If the narrative gaps and foreseeable episodes act as potholes in the road that weaken our shock absorbers as readers, then surely the roadside signs that act as markers become lost in the fog of heartbreak as we wind past the hollers where the guns of Chekhov echo. Gone are names, replaced instead with identifiers such as “Hot Girl” and “The guy who got Sarah pregnant.” The Sarah Book isn’t as much about the fictional Sarah as much as it is about fictional Scott. We know she is a nurse, a woman sensitive to the needs of others, one of patience, good humor and forgiveness.
She is also someone with limits to her virtues.
Great literature, much like great criticism has its limits as well.
34 miles north of Beckley, West Virginia, McClanahan is calling to us to join him at the top of Cathedral Falls, his view obscured by the morning mist as we prepare to ascend with him upon turning the page that reads “Portions of this book have been plagiarized.” But the vision is still one of beauty. If he’s stumbled occasionally here, so do we all, the tears drawn from a skinned knee as a youth now saved for worse things in life. “What could a child know of the darkness of God's plan? Or how flesh is so frail it is hardly more than a dream?” asked Cormac McCarthy’s narrator in the novel Suttree. What do any of us know of this until we jump off the cliff into the fire?
ERIC NELSON is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.