“There is only one thing I know about life. 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.”
With this matter-of-fact statement, Scott McClanahan begins one of the most realistic and believable autopsies of a marriage I’ve ever read. In The Sarah Book, he ping-pongs between recollections of the good times, arguments, warning signs, and eventual collapse of his and his first wife Sarah’s relationship in prose so deceptively plainspoken that it feels conversational.
Over the past decade, through three story collections, three novels, and, most recently, The Incantations of Daniel Johnston (Two Dollar Radio), a graphic biography of the famous lo-fi musician, McClanahan has honed a distinctly candid and unpretentious prose style. His literary voice is nakedly emotional one minute and brutally funny the next, but it rarely produces a false note. McClanahan has earned many accolades in the indie-lit scene; The Sarah Book should introduce him to the wider audience his work richly deserves.
Hewing to one’s own life experiences is always a complicated proposition for a writer, but by calling his books “fiction” McClanahan absolves himself of having to keep to strict factual accuracy while giving himself full license to tell his stories. The fictional McClanahan drives drunk with small children he’s forgotten are strapped into the back seat; he burns a Bible given to his wife on their wedding day, then tries to laugh it off; he tries to win her back by reading her poetry, knowing full well the effort is a lost cause.
Throughout The Sarah Book McClanahan portrays himself as an agent of chaos and misery, detailing the ways in which his tantrums, fixations, and paranoias hurt his wife, children, and everyone else he comes into contact with; and yet the reader neither pities nor despises him. The rural West Virginia that McClanahan writes about is rarely represented in mainstream American literature. Too often in books and popular culture, poor country people are portrayed as either ugly redneck caricatures or naive, good-natured simpletons. In McClanahan’s works, no matter the characters’ flaws, they are portrayed as complex and multidimensional, even though they aren’t necessarily admirable.
Regardless of how dark his despair might be, McClanahan never stops trying to save the day even when he knows his efforts will be in vain. “I was late the morning of my divorce hearing because I was writing Sarah a love letter,” he writes. “Of course, I’d been telling her for months now that no one would love her like I did. She always laughed and said, ‘Thank god. I sure fucking hope not.'”
In the end, years after McClanahan’s marriage to Sarah has ended, despite how grueling the dissolution of their relationship may have been, he can break bread with their children and her new boyfriend and introduce his new girlfriend to her as well. McClanahan shows how everyone we get involved with becomes a part of us forever. The Sarah Book is a testament to how the weight of one’s failings can be borne with grace. v