Scott McClanahan’s Animal Magnetism
Mar 20 2013
God, I hate Southern literature. I can say that because I’m from Georgia, and most of the time when people use that term it’s to say, “Look how cute it is when they drop their g's and say y’all.” Even icons like Flannery O’Connor and Barry Hannah are frequently made into fetish, like truck nuts and rebel flags, and it only gets worse when you look at what’s been put out in their image in the last 20 years.
Scott McClanahan is from West Virginia. I don’t consider West Virginia part of the South because it has the fucking word “west” in its name, but somehow I think of Scott as a kind of reauthenticated version of everything that’s good about Southern writing. I’ve seen him silence a room at least five different times now with just the words that came out of his mouth. Part weird family secrets and social rotting, part mesmeric fervor, and part “this guy might pull a knife on me,” McClanahan tells stories the way your favorite methed-up uncle with a dead tooth who disappeared when you were 12 did. In short: it feels like someone is actually hell-bent on speaking to you for once.
Crapalachia is McClanahan’s first full-length book of nonfiction, following several collections of stories. Subtitled “A Biography of a Place,” it takes on the feel of a monologue-like memoir, following Scott through years of living with an insane array of West Virginians, including Uncle Nathan, a man with cerebral palsy who believes he chats via email with God, and Little Bill, who obsessively weighs himself and sprays his feet with Lysol. It’s a wild and inventive book, unquestionably fresh of spirit, and totally unafraid to break formalisms to tell it like it was.
Here’s a chapter from the book.
"JANETTE PART 2"
So Bill started losing all kinds of weight after Janette. It was like a whole new Bill. There was an FB time in Bill’s history and then SB time. Fat Bill and Skinny Bill. He looked like one of those bobbing-head dolls with his big head and this skinny body.
I turned around one day and he looked different.
“Goddamn,” I said.
He went to school in work clothes with about four T-shirts or so beneath it. For lunch and dinner all he ate were peanut butter sandwiches. He ate a peanut butter sandwich for lunch, and a peanut butter sandwich for dinner. On top of that he drank 9 glasses of water and that’s what started it.
I sat in school and I read about how everything changes even in Crapalachia. I read about how the miners became machines, and the loggers became the machines and the tiny roads turned into interstates and the towns became fast food drive thru’s and gas stations and the people became people to serve tourists and let the tourists laugh at their accents.
I read about how people charged money to take people down the river. They charged people money to go mountain climbing. The people worked in restaurants so that tourists could laugh at their accents. They were paying for something that was given for free. The people from here didn’t have to run a river to prove that it existed. They didn’t have to climb a mountain just to climb it. It was enough that the river was a river and the mountain was a mountain and inside of them were mountains too.
In the evenings, Bill sat and talked about how people hurt one another. He talked about how he heard voices sometimes and how hard it was to think the same thing over and over. I asked him if he ever thought about suicide. He said, “Yeah.” Then he asked me if I ever did. I said, “Every fucking day.”
The next morning Bill started checking his weight all of the time. He brought in this scale and sat it on the floor. In the mornings he got up and walked over to the scale. Then he stood up on the scale. Then he checked his weight. He got down off the scale and walked back over to his bed. Then he got a drink of water. Then he walked back over to the scale. He stood up on the scale again. He checked his weight. Then he did it all over. He did this all the time—50 times a day.
We went to school and he went over to the cafeteria and instead of eating a sandwich, and a salad, and a hamburger like he used to eat, now all he did was eat a peanut butter sandwich and drink 9 glasses of water. He was always drinking water. He drank one right after the other until he had filled his stomach up. It was something else to watch, him drinking all that water and getting all grumpy and mad.
Then we went into class and we read about the Greenbrier Ghost, we read about the Hawk’s Nest disaster. We read about how our place was changing. I read about the Sago Mine disaster and the men who survived an explosion only to have so little oxygen left they all went into the corner of the mine shaft and hid behind a giant rubber curtain. The giant rubber curtain was supposed to protect them from carbon monoxide. They put on the breathing mask, but there was only an hour of air left. They spent what time they had left writing letters to their children and wives. The letters went like this:
Tell all I’ll see them on the other side.
It wasn’t bad. I just went to sleep. I love you. Jr.
Your daddy didn’t suffer.
After Bill lost all the weight his personality really changed. It seemed like any little thing that happened would just set him off. One night in the room he was bitching and complaining about how something was wrong. Bill and Lee started getting into it.
Lee said something that pissed Bill off and then I shook my head and said: “What the hell happened to you? This new skinny Bill is pissed off all the time. I want fat Bill back.”
He started looking out the window all of the time. He kept looking down to the building where Janette lived. He did this once, and he walked away. Then he did it again, and then he walked away. He did it a million times.
“Seriously, Bill. Fuck,” I said. “She’s going to see you looking out the window so much you’re going to freak her ass out.”
He did it again.
Then we went to school and we studied the past. We learned about how rescuers went into the Sago Mine and found the miners. They were still alive. They were all alive. CNN reported all miners found alive except one. WVU won a football game that night. The governor said it was a night of miracles. There was a mistake made though. The radio wasn’t working properly. They weren’t alive. They were all gone. They were all dead except one. His name was Randal McCloy. He was a young man in his 20s with a young wife and two children. It is believed he survived because the rest of the men in their 50s made the decision to share their oxygen with the younger man, and keep him alive for his young wife and small children.
The young man watched the older men go to sleep one by one. And then it grew quiet.
And then Bill was up in the room that evening, and had his shirt off doing some kind of sit-ups. It seemed like every week after Bill lost his weight he would bring in some new kind of fancy sit-up machine. He would have the Ab Cruncher 100 or another one called the Ab Buster 3000. Or he would be down on the floor doing crunches as fast as he could 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8… And he counted them off with his face all covered in sweat.
Then he stood up and said: “Whelp, that’s another 500 crunches.”
Then he went over to the wall mirror and looked at himself and flexed his muscles. Then he looked out the window again.
Of course, after a while this really freaked Janette out—this guy looking out the window down at her apartment every day, watching her leave for work. So I guess she had enough and ended up calling the cops.
The cop came by that afternoon and said there were complaints about Bill looking out the window and staring. He said Bill wasn’t in trouble yet, but the young woman was afraid. I told the cop it was all right. I told the cop Bill suffered from OCD.
The cop said, “What?”
I told him it would be OK.
I told him Bill wouldn’t do it anymore.
That evening when I came back to the room Lee and Bill were unfolding a sheet all the way out. They got up on two chairs and they took some clothespins and hung this sheet all the way over the window. We had this giant sheet across the window so Bill wouldn’t be looking out the window and freaking Janette out. It made the room dark as hell. Of course, Bill would still go over to the window and peek out the corner every now and then. Whenever I wanted to go look out the window I had to pull the sheet back too. It was like this for four months.
Then one day Bill came in and told me he didn’t care about Janette anymore because he had a new girl now. He just came back from a date with her. He told me they went to the movies. He didn’t say if it was a girl from school or not.
“Did you kiss her?” I asked.
He told me, “Well with it being a first date and all.”
I asked him what movie they went to see.
He couldn’t tell me.
I didn’t ask him what her name was because he wouldn’t be able to tell me that either.
He just went over and sat in his chair in front of his desk. He turned on his music and he started practicing his W’s. I close my eyes…
So now when I think about Bill I always think about him holding the flowers for Janette. I think about that Valentine's Day. I still see him standing outside the apartment. And it’s dark and I have books in my arms taking them back to the library. Bill’s just standing in front of the bushes with the flowers in his hands. And the wind’s blowing so hard Bill’s head of red hair is all tousled. I see myself putting the collar of my coat up and just watching him.
He’s saying, “Do you remember which door it is, Scott?”
I see him standing there and his flowers are blowing over in the wind.
So I added Bill’s name to the list of people I have ever loved. I wanted to write down these names so that I can remember them one day when everyone else has forgotten. I wanted to write a list of all the people I had ever known and keep them in my heart. I wanted to have a list of them even though I couldn’t see their faces.
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