Reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe
McClanahan came to a lot of people’s attention with his recent novel-in-stories Crapalachia, the best description of which I’ve read is that it resembles a meth-addict uncle who sits down beside you at a family get-together and tells you the best story you’ve ever heard. It was one of my favorite novels of the year, so I was quite excited to read his next novel-in-stories, Hill William. As with Crapalachia, William is set in rural West Virginia and follows a young man through his teens and into his early 20s. Crapalachia is a dirge for a dying land and a dying way of life; Hill William is set a little further down the line, when the mountains have already started to be cleared of trees and strip-mined. The chainsaws run constantly in the background of the town of Rainelle, West Virginia, and eventually the remaining woods are posted by the lumber companies so that, according to one character, no one can see the real damage they’re doing.
The wraparound story of the book is the narrator’s problems with his girlfriend, Sarah, which are beyond the simple issues one might expect in an average 20-something’s book. In the opening story, the narrator has a problem with hitting himself in the face, for example. Later, 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 skewed sense of humor brings these stories to life. Similarly, McClanahan describes a religious experience endangered by a skid mark left on his narrator’s post-baptism towel. Even with flippant and, at times, quite dark scenes, McClanahan manages to work his stories to powerful, non-cynical conclusions. He peoples the book with grotesques, but he humanizes them very well, because he presents his narrator as a grotesque, and implies that he is one himself.
This book is a great read. Some standout stories are “How I Finally Became Cool,” a troubling yet humorous story about football, sexual abuse, and burgeoning sexuality; “The Day I Met Batman,” a pitch-perfect story about hope, and the aforementioned “Church,” which is one of the best pieces of writing I’ve read since Barry Hannah’s “Airships.”
There are many other standout elements to the book, like McClanahan’s signature symbolic anti-symbolism (like one character’s cousin who ‘fucked the earth’). Much like Donald Harington has done for the Arkansas Ozarks, McClanahan is sketching a portrait of rural West Virginian Appalachia, with touches of magical realism presented with a playful tone, and vivid, memorable characters who, though they are probably alien to some readers, leap to life through McClanahan’s humanity. McClanahan also has a habit, similar to Harington, of playing with time in his stories, though I don’t mean to imply too much similarity between the two writers. McClanahan easily stands on his own. And now that we’ve lost Harington, McClanahan serves to carry the torch.
CL Bledsoe is the author of the young adult novel Sunlight; three poetry collections: _____(Want/Need), Anthem, and Leap Year; and a short story collection called Naming the Animals. A poetry chapbook, Goodbye to Noise, is available online at Right Hand Pointing. Another, The Man Who Killed Himself in My Bathroom, is here. He blogs at Murder Your Darlings and has written reviews for The Hollins Critic, The Arkansas Review, American Book Review, Prick of the Spindle, The Pedestal Magazine, and elsewhere. Bledsoe lives with his wife and daughter in Maryland.