A Reclamation of Pain in West Virginia
Adolescent male sexuality is one of the most savage spaces known to man. They say we know less about the ocean floor than we do about outer space. Were we to truly sound the depths of our boyhood explorations, there might not be any more little boys who grow up into scientists. The truth of our experience blinds us as we grit our teeth in denial.
We all read Rousseau in college and nodded along as we were taught that the “state of nature” was a heuristic tool of his, not an empirically factual event. We willfully forgot the state of war that was puberty. Everyone has secrets. Those things that were too much for us as kids warp as we age.
Scott McClanahan writes in short, confident strokes. His voice is hauntingly childlike. He breaks into the house of your being and when you see him, he says: “We wring the pain from the darkness and call it wisdom. It is not wisdom. It is pain.”
You know those moments. You’re at a party and that girl is flirting with someone else; you receive an email that you can’t bring yourself to open because it is a response to something you wrote in a fit of drunken passion; a friend says something that makes you feel stupid and small and you tell yourself that you’re better than they are instead of responding. Rather than dive into seconds of intense pain, you look away. Hill William is the record of a man who let one of those moments drag him over the forest floor and into a clearing.
Hill William unfolds in vignettes. McClanahan revisits his life growing up in West Virginia after his outbursts of violence convince his girlfriend that he should see a psychiatrist. What ensues is a tracing much like the winding search along fault lines for an earthquake’s hypocenter. This is a book for the willful forgetters, for the violence of the innocent, and most of all for those who couldn’t have done otherwise. No one chooses to be a deviant or an outcast. They are that way despite their best efforts. We should despise the pedophile, no one denies this. But perhaps we should also pity him.
A child’s sexual desire bursts forth, but it is always contained. The containment often perverts its expression. McClanahan’s memories reveal the sticky handed shame that children feel upon seeing the manifestation of their closest secrets.
The relationship between art and politics is nebulous. McClanahan is not a political writer. This does not mean his writing is apathetic, indulgent, sensationalist or sentimental. He is not apolitical. While Hill William is an rumination on an impoverished pocket of America, it’s not a commentary. Politics are found in Scott’s sensitivity. The terror and humiliation attendant to watching a cool older kid masturbate are political. As are ill-fitting sexual mores and Scott’s reluctant succumbing to psychotherapy and drugs. The point is that many times, politics don’t feel like what they are. Their resistance to being named is stifling for those who want change.
Setting is elemental to what McClanahan unlocks. West Virginia, through his eyes is a hidden place. The embarrassment of poverty, the tenderness between neighbors in a small town, the visibility of arcane perversions in the modern world- their ghosts linger, creeping like shunned lovers. You get the sense that life would be better elsewhere. All you need to do is pull a geographic.
McClanahan refuses. He cheers the loggers as they decimate the hills of his home. He digs a hole in the earth and screws it. Personal narrative lets McClanahan love the backwater. He bathes in its comforting filth.
People like to lump McClanahan in with “Alt Lit” (whatever that is). This is probably due to a few things; his publisher, New York Tyrant’s cocaine-cowboy vibe, his choppy style and his propensity for dropping a situation in the reader’s face, saying “deal with it”. The material people use to stereotype him are in fact evidence of his gift. He cuts the flat-footed mechanics of by-the-books story telling.
Shaving away the flab like a sculptor, what remains is the essence of pain. McClanahan’s novel makes both sentimental and post-modern literature look skeuomorphic. He’s not playing games and you can feel it.
Reading is different for me now than it used to be. I read a lot, every day. I stop halfway through something; I skim; I hunker down. Nearly every time, I forget the meat. Scott McClanahan’s work sticks with you because there isn’t anything to remember. It just opens you up. It’s memories of stopping at Denny’s on road trips with your parents. It’s the history of the buildup on the bathroom floor. It’s discovering that hidden memory that gives you a bigger world.