Scott McClanahan has built his career on defying expectations and blurring genres. The West Virginia author has been an indie-lit favorite for years, earning fans who admired his bizarre and often funny short fiction. In 2013, he gained something of a national profile following the publication of Crapalachia, a memoir, and Hill William, a novel. Though the genres were different, both critically acclaimed books drew from McClanahan's own sometimes troubled life.
If there's any justice in the literary world — and occasionally there is — McClanahan will get the widespread recognition he's long deserved with The Sarah Book, his tragic and beautiful second novel. It's an unsparing primal scream of a book, and it convincingly makes the case that McClanahan is one of the best American writers of his generation.
"There is only one thing I know about life," the novel begins. "If you live long enough you start losing things. Things get stolen from you: First you lose your youth, and then your parents, and then you lose your friends, and finally you end up losing yourself." It's a fitting introduction; loss is the main theme of the novel, and McClanahan explores the topic with an honesty so raw, it's likely to bring tears to your eyes more than once.
The book is narrated by a character named Scott McClanahan, who, like the author, lives in a small city in West Virginia. As the book opens, Scott gets drunk on gin and speeds down a highway, his two young children in the back seat. It's the first in a series of bad decisions by Scott — he recounts burning a Bible that he and his wife, Sarah, received as a wedding present. ("I was a grown-ass man and if I wanted to burn a Bible then Sarah couldn't tell me not to," Scott reasons.)
Not long after, Sarah asks Scott for a divorce, and he panics: "I told her I'd do better and I told her I'd stop drinking and I told her I'd take better care of myself ... I told her I'd go to therapy and I said please Sarah please Sarah please, but then Sarah said no."
Heartbroken, Scott starts living in his car in a Walmart parking lot. He gets drunk and talks to the chicken wings that make up the majority of his diet. It's perhaps the lowest point of Scott's life, but McClanahan manages to work in his signature dark humor, with Scott imagining writing an online review of his new home: "I highly recommend the Walmart parking lot for living in your car after a divorce .... I did notice quite a bit of drug related activity at all hours of the day. There is obviously some prostitution going on in the parking lot as well. Yay life. 4 stars."
The Sarah Book is all about loss and pain and existential anguish, and McClanahan doesn't pull any punches. One scene finds Scott weeping on the floor of his parents' bathroom as his mother tries to console him — it's painful to read, but it's one of the most beautifully written passages in a novel to come around in a while. In another scene, Scott finds himself in his apartment, pining for his children: "I took my medicine and sat on my bed and bundled all of the pillows beside me and pretended they were little kids. My kids. I did this sometimes when I was lonely and missing them."
McClanahan again proves himself to be a skillful stylist — The Sarah Book is slim, and there are no wasted words in it. He's a musical writer, and the novel is full of passages that beg to be reread over and over again. In one scene, Scott finds himself at a strip club, and manages to find some salvation in the unlikely venue. "Every type of heart in the world was here and we were all the secret people," he thinks. "We were sons and daughters and mothers and friends and no one could judge us and no one could know us because tonight we were together. Tonight we were alive."
And while The Sarah Book is frequently very sad, McClanahan refuses to give up hope. Scott gets knocked down again and again, but he never stays down — this is a novel that celebrates resilience even as it mourns the losses we sustain every day. "In one life we are married," McClanahan writes. "In one life we are dead. In one we are rich. In one we are poor. In one we are parents. But always we belong to others." The Sarah Book is brave, triumphant and beautiful — it reads like a fever dream, and it feels like a miracle.