On the day I finished reading Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book, I watched a sullen man push a corpse on a blue velvet-draped gurney into the back of a Honda Odyssey. Thankfully I didn’t know the dead person – I just happened to be near the loading dock of a hospital, where this is apparently a common occurrence. A janitor told me how hearses and undertakers are expensive and people rarely go to the trouble to hire them to transport a body anymore. The most likely outcome if you die in a hospital is that the funeral home will send a man in a windbreaker to unceremoniously wheel you out, past delivery boxes, and into a mini-van with the seats removed. I was told that this person must have been important, because even the blue velvet was a special touch – most of the time, it’s just a lumpy black bag zippered shut.
This doesn’t happen in The Sarah Book, but it seemed to be an appropriate moment of synchronicity with the kind of book that it is. As with Crapalachia and Hill William, The Sarah Book is a chronicle of Scott McClanahan’s life – in this case, a mournful, resplendent dirge for his marriage to the titular Sarah. It opens in the middle of a scene demonstrating just how far McClanahan has fallen: driving his two young children on a dark West Virginia highway while chugging a plastic water bottle of gin. As Denis Johnson did, McClanahan has a knack for illustrating sublime detail into moments of human ugliness:
And so I drank it down. I imagined myself drinking down all the skin of the world and all the blood of the world and the spirits of all my friends and I was drinking the air. I was melting my children and I was drinking them too. And they tasted great.
Far from romanticizing the situation or any others like it, McClanahan lays bare the failings of his flesh in ways that often shift from self-flagellation to poetry. The entirety of The Sarah Book is in his extreme first person, where you are not just listening to Scott tell the story from his point of view, but also integrating the very functions of his thoughts into the prose. The flawed logic of his decisions, the blind spots of his actions, the powerful surges of egotistical emotion, are all presented not in regretful terms, but in the screaming tension of present action. He makes this clear towards the very beginning of the book. When the relationship begins to come apart at the seams, McClanahan doesn’t try to conflate his own story with any sort of biblical allegory or fate driven by mystic circumstances. “There wasn’t a crossroads and there were no souls to sell. And there wasn’t any such thing as Satan. There was only me. All Hell.” Like one of the characters of “Being John Malkovich”, you aren’t just along for the ride with McClanahan – you will feel the effects of his reality as much as he did.
When he is kicked out, McClanahan falls into the warm embrace of all-American consumerism (both figuratively and literally), living out of his car in a Wal-Mart parking lot. His descriptions of the store tend to regard it as a life-giving place of worship, which is apt, considering they are just as ubiquitous in American hearts and landscapes as actual places of worship. McClanahan approaches the subject with a classical bent – it’s easy to imagine his description of Wal-Mart’s offerings alongside Emile Zola’s description of the 19th-century era Les Halles in The Belly of Paris:
So I went inside and saw the aisles rise like castles before me. And there was beef jerky, and almonds and chicken wings, pizza bites and cheese, all kinds of cheese, steak, pork chops, crackers and cereal. There was Fruity Pebbles and potato skins and soda, Mountain Lightning soda. And there was Red Bull, diet Red Bull, beer, light beer, dark beer, pistachios, juice boxes for kids, air mattresses instead of beds.
But while The Sarah Book has its moments of physical overindulgence, the real story is about the hungry pain of loss, how no amount of material pleasures can replace the void of a person from your life. McClanahan’s prose is all the more heartbreaking because it isn’t written with the dry platitudes that authors so often fall back on. It’s his own brand of honest vulnerability, collapsing into tears one moment – and then a shattered ego, destroyed but resolved to stare into the void, the next. When his first daughter was born, Scott and Sarah both come face-to-face with the real power of birth: the inevitable removal of control from both parents.
But it shook me and if I had to tell you about what I know on the nature of birth, it would be this. It would be Sarah McClanahan shaking in her bed and her eyes full of one word. Terror. And then me, Scott McClanahan: The one who was powerless over terror.
For all the familiarity we try to dress it up in, birth is a primal force, with the same kind of mystery and fear that surrounds death. This is the kind of trajectory the The Sarah Book is on, as McClanahan tumbles through a confusing world of the material, immaterial, and how people cope when faced with pain.
The most appealing thing about McClanahan’s writing is its open embrace of life’s juxtaposing nature. Fragility exists alongside rock-hard cynicism, and both are wielded with mastery throughout this novel. It’s hard to imagine a more definitive scene than a Christmas morning recounted, where Scott does his best to do something meaningful for Sarah – give her presents from all the people who she interacts with – only to have it blow up in his face when confronted with the true dark nature of these people. The traditional happy ending is upended, and rightfully so, as real-life seldom functions that way. Even when it does, it would be difficult to find the kind of meaning in it that Scott can find in ‘helpless things’ like Mr. King, a blind, rapidly-decaying, elderly pug under Sarah’s care. In other stories, the dogs are helpful, loyal, warming hearts and saving lives, who often die bloodlessly, if at all. Mr. King is the exact opposite: missing an eye, leaking fluids, running into walls, and who even in death can’t find peace – McClanahan returns to his grave to find it washed open by flooding.
For all the dark humor and bleak reality within its pages, McClanahan really shines in his embrace of the pain in the relationship, and the nobility of charging headfirst into his own selfish, human nature. There are many moments of him transcending the situations into a kind of Buddha-like zen, often accompanied by fantastic embellishments of events otherwise considered mundane. In a singular chapter where he watches a war documentary on The History Channel, it is described thusly:
I watched the same death pour through it all and the skeletons and the bodies of zombies rose like mountains. And they were all in love with something. And I wondered if these wars were love letters of some sort. Love letters that said nothing.
Perhaps what he describes is the real American experiment, if not the human one, to find a new truth in a culture overwhelmed with ephemera and falsities. If this is true, The Sarah Book might just be Scott McClanahan’s journey to the truth, and the rest of us are lucky enough to be able to pick it up and read it. Whether his truth matches yours, or differs from it completely, isn’t the point. Think of Keats’ sentiment, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Beauty exists in the journey to the truth. But the difference is, as McClanahan has recognized, that no two journeys are ever the same. In that, a kind of solace can be taken – not an eternal peace, but a respite we can hold onto as we fly forward together into infinity.
The Sarah Book
by Scott McClanahan
Tyrant Books; 150 p.