Review: Crapalachia: A Biography of Place by Scott McClanahan
Two Dollar Radio | March 2013 | Reviewed by Katie Martinez
I can’t say my mind conjures up the most pleasant images when I think of rural West Virginia. Having grown up in sunny, picturesque Miami, and now living in the prolific clamor of New York City, it’s hard for me to think of Appalachia as anything but depressing. It exists in my mind as the end of the world, a place far removed from civilized society as I know it, a place of cultural backwardness, of poverty and desolation.
Approaching the book from this perspective, Scott McClanahan’s Crapalachia: A Biography of Place was a wonderful surprise. It narrates McClanahan’s time living with his old Grandma Ruby and sick Uncle Nathan—and, later, his troubled friend Little Bill—as he spends his formative years growing up in rural West Virginia. McClanahan paints a wonderfully inviting and intimate picture, one quite different from the images of alienation I expected. His highly frenetic and consciously disjointed prose beautifully reflects his chaotic, constantly changing life. His world, consumed with death, mental illness, and displacement, is at once strikingly quirky and genuinely relatable. McClanahan’s story is strange in the most sublimely familiar way, recalling for all of us the dark side of growing up.
Crapalachia’s subtitle is somewhat misleading: it is not a biography of place at all. It is instead the chronicle of one man’s search for peace and clarity amid a world of chaos. It is not an attempt to contextualize Appalachia but is instead McClanahan’s effort to rearrange the world itself. Breaking the fourth wall in a manner fitting his delightfully restless style, he says he wrote the book “to remember all of the people and phantoms I had ever known and loved.” Crapalachia is his attempt to immortalize everyone he’s ever known, to bring the dead back to life and to celebrate the lives of all who have ever felt isolated and alone.
To do this, McClanahan doesn’t quite stick to fact. This “biography” is heavily fictionalized, as McClanahan admits in the book’s Appendix. He immortalizes his loved ones, not as they existed in life, but as idealized versions, as the people he wished they had been and they wished they could be. He creates stories that are more true to the characters themselves than reality ever was, allowing them to be themselves in their fullest forms. By heavily fictionalizing the lives of those around him, McClanahan creates memorable characters that are so vivid, you feel like you know them personally. The people that populate this world, as characterized and brought to life by this book, are McClanahan’s ultimate testament to the spirit of life and humanity.
Crapalachia may justify my original assumption that Appalachia is a dark, desolate, and depressing place, but it also proves that these are not aspects unique to rural West Virginia. The darkness in McClanahan’s life is not a symptom of cultural depravity but a universal aspect of the human condition. It is this bleak intimacy that shines through the entire book. Crapalachia reminds us that, whether we’re in West Virginia or New York, we’re all united in our struggles.
For more information, or to purchase a copy, please visit Two Dollar Radio’s website.
Crapalachia: A Biography of Place
March 19, 2013
Trade Paperback Original
Posted: Jun 20, 2013
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