Scott McClanahan inspires devotion. My first encounter with his work came in 2011, when he offered, via Facebook message, to send a copy of his book, Stories V! I don't usually take these types of emails seriously—McClanahan had essentially self-published the collection—but once I started reading, I became absorbed. The writing was raw and outsidery and vulnerable, packing a serious emotional wallop, but it was also loose, even messy. With his 2013 memoir Crapalachia, his 2014 novel Hill William, and 2016's The Incantations of Daniel Johnston, a graphic novel with artist Ricardo Cavolo, McClanahan has established himself as one of indie lit's most popular writers, a charismatic performer whose singular, dramatic readings of his work are akin to experiencing a literary revival meeting, equal parts rapture and reverence.
This month, independent publisher New York Tyrant releases The Sarah Book, McClanahan's latest, a semi-autobiographical novel based on his divorce. (Full-disclosure: New York Tyrant's publisher is Giancarlo DiTrapano, the former fiction editor at VICE.) Delivered in McClanahan's plain-spoken yet lyric style, the novel veers from the crushing to the ecstatic, mirroring the life of its narrator, also named Scott McClanahan, a drunk-driving, Bible-burning, wings-loving young West Virginian and father of two as he tries to get his life together. It's funny and dark and moving and true, and I hope you enjoy.
—James Yeh, culture editor
I told Sarah I was going to live at Walmart until she changed her mind about the divorce. After I lived there a week, I decided that she wasn't going to change her mind. So each day I sat and watched the buggy boys gather up the buggies and take them inside. I watched the people with handicapped stickers pull all the way up and park in front. I decided to call Sarah and check up on the kids.
I told her, "Well, if you need me, you'll know where to find me." Then I shouted, "Oh, God!"
Sarah said, "What's wrong?"
I told her, "Oh, don't worry. I think I just saw the biggest woman I've ever seen going into Walmart. I wish you could see her. Hold on. I'll try to take a picture."
But Sarah said, "Yeah, Barbara said she saw you in the Walmart parking lot. She asked me why you were there. It's embarrassing people seeing you there, Scott." She told me she needed to give me something and I knew what she meant. She wanted to give me some money for an apartment.
I told her I wasn't going to take any of her blood money and she told me I would. I told her I wouldn't and she told me I would. I told her no. This is where I live now. She told me no you don't. Then I tried reciting a love poem for her but she told me I was drunk.
"I don't need her goddamn blood money," I repeated after we hung up. "She's not even romantic. Won't even let me recite poems to her?"
Then I sat in my car and looked out at the parking lot and said, "These are my people. This is West Virginia."
And they were. I watched the customers walking from their cars and into the store and when they came back to their cars their buggies were full of stuff. One buggy. Two buggies. Three buggies. Four.
They were shopping for groceries to take home and make their children grow. I sat in the car and drank my gin from a water bottle. Then when my bladder got full I went inside and peed. A white car pulled up at the end of the parking lot and just sat there. I decided to call the guy driving "Big Pimpin'" and when Big Pimpin' parked it was always the same. He was a skinny-looking little white dude who had dreadlocks. He sat in the white car and then a few minutes later another car pulled up. A redneck-looking dude got out and walked over to the white car. I wondered if they ever tried reciting love poems to someone.
Watch VICE Meets Norwegian literary superstar Karl Ove Knausgaard:
I watched the redneck dude lean inside the window. It looked like they were exchanging something and then the redneck dude got back in his car and drove away. Then Big Pimpin' drove away. I waved at Big Pimpin' but he didn't wave back. It was OK. These were my people. But then just a few minutes later Big Pimpin' pulled back up again. There was a girl inside the car with him now and she had dyed-looking blond hair and a skeleton face. They waited together and then a blue beat-up van pulled up. The meth-looking girl got out of the car. She was inside the van for about a half hour and then she got out and went back inside Big Pimpin's car. She was trying to put her shoe back on. I sat and thought up my own review of Walmart I could post online. I watched them drive away and I wrote inside my head.
I highly recommend the Walmart parking lot for living in your car after a divorce. The cops don't seem to bother you if you park close to the entrance. 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.
That night I watched people leaving and the lights glowed from the parking lot. I went inside and used the bathroom. I looked at CDs for about a half hour and then I came back out and moved my car to the other side of the parking lot so the cops wouldn't give me hell. I noticed a text from Sarah that said, "We need to talk about getting you some money so you can get an apartment."
I wrote back, "I'm not taking anything. And how come you won't let me recite love poems to you? Seriously."
She never texted back. So I leaned my chair all of the way back and I put my jacket over my head and I slept. I dreamed about people going inside and buying all of the things that made up their lives. I dreamed about the whole world becoming just one big parking lot and we were all living there thinking about what we could buy. The next day I woke up and someone was knocking on the window. It was Sarah and she was wanting to give me some money for an apartment. I unlocked the car doors and she walked around to the passenger side. There were people going inside the store again and there were some kids playing.
Sarah sat down in the passenger seat and said, "We have to talk. You have to get out of here and let me give you some money."
I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and Sarah said, "Where do you go to the bathroom?" I pointed to the empty Gatorade bottle on the floor. And then I told her I went inside to use the bathroom a lot, too. I snuck my toothbrush in each morning and brushed my teeth in the sink. I said, "And then when I get bored I go in and play the video games they have set up in the electronics section. It really helps to pass the time."
I told her that I loved going inside after midnight and watching all of the people of the world shop. They were the people who the rest of the world didn't want and they were the ones who didn't belong anymore. They were the people with amputated arms and they were the people in wheelchairs and they were the people with face tattoos and scars. I was a scar, too. I was a giant human scar. And then I felt serious and I said, "Walmart is more than a store. Walmart is a state of mind."
We laughed and I started to rant.
I told her people always bitch about Walmart putting mom-and-pops out of business and killing the small businesses of our country. But who did the mom-and-pops put out of business? Who did they fuck over? They fucked over the blacksmiths, but you don't hear the blacksmiths bitching. I told her I was on the side of the blacksmiths.
And then I felt serious and I said, "Walmart is more than a store. Walmart is a state of mind."
Then I told her about my dreams. I told her the whole world was going to be like this one day and the world was just going to be one giant parking lot and people would live to shop at Walmart and buy stuff. I was quiet for a second. "It's going to happen. The people will come. And they will bow before it all." Sarah finally had enough and she wasn't letting me talk anymore.
She was watching a woman emptying out her buggy and said, "You would think that woman has enough beef jerky." She looked at me and said, "Scott, I want to give you something. I don't want you living here anymore."
I was going to change the subject again or try reciting poems for her, but then I told her my life wasn't just money to get an apartment. I told her I hoped I meant more than a little bit of money to make someone feel better. I told her I'd stay here for the rest of my life if I had to and I didn't believe in the stories the world tells us to make people feel better about themselves. Then I told her I didn't have enough money to get an apartment anyway.
Sarah said, "Well, I have a way to fix that for you. I have a check for you." She reached into her purse and pulled it out. She told me it was from part of our savings at the credit union and I told her she wasn't going to buy my ass off so easy. I wasn't just someone you could give money to and they'd shut the fuck up. Sarah tried to hand me the check but I wouldn't take it. She told me it was $4,000 and then she threw it on my lap. The check said, "$4,000." So I did what life teaches you to do when someone wants to give you money. I shut the fuck up and I took it. I took it because my life was worth $4,000.
Finally, Sarah got out of the car without saying goodbye. I didn't say thank you and she didn't say you're welcome and Sarah went and sat down in her car and then she drove away. As she was driving away I felt the need to say something to her. I wanted to say how much she meant to me, how much fun we'd had and how that's what no one ever talks about or can explain—the fun. And the fights too. We had the best fights and where did it go? Instead I just looked at the check and thought, Sarah has such nice handwriting. Another reason I love her.
I went to the bank and I deposited the check. Instead of going somewhere else I came back and sat in the Walmart parking lot and I watched the people go inside. I watched them fill up the buggies and forget about all of their pain. I knew that all of the people would be coming soon and so I decided to join them and become one of them for a moment. I got out of my car and walked toward Walmart. It glowed in front of me like a temple. I walked and walked and then I saw Big Pimpin'. He sat for a few moments and then another car pulled up beside him. I watched him park and then I waved at him. This time instead of ignoring me like he usually did, Big Pimpin' raised his hand up and then he nodded at me and said hello and we were friends now. 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 to sleep on instead of beds. And there were CDs and there were DVDs, saline solution for my contacts, potato chips, and dip for potato chips. I had $4,000 to spend and there were things here to keep me alive. And so I walked among the aisles. I thought about Sarah and her telling me to be quiet when I recited my poems and I thought, What kind of damn person doesn't like poems? I could see outside in the parking lot and the people were coming for a coronation of some sort. And so I walked among them because these were my people and this was my kingdom. They would all be bowing soon. This was the new country we had made from the skeleton of the old one. And I was their king of beef jerky. I was their emperor of soda.
Follow Scott McClanahan on Twitter.
Excerpted from The Sarah Book by Scott McClanhan by arrangement with New York Tyrant Books.